Asean leaders address Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, but refuse to point finger at Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s embattled figurehead focus of summit but Southeast Asian leaders remain diplomatic, unlike protesters near Sydney venue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 10:15pm

Australia and its Asean neighbours vowed to boost defence ties while stressing the importance of non-militarisation in the disputed South China Sea on Sunday at a summit where the “complex” Rohingya crisis took centre-stage.

Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at the three-day meeting in Sydney, also agreed to work more closely to tackle the growing menace of violent extremism and radicalisation.

But while a final communique noted a resolve to “protect the human rights of our peoples”, it failed to condemn member state Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority group.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled troubled Rakhine state for Bangladesh since authorities launched a brutal crackdown six months ago following attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants.

Myanmar’s unofficial leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was in Sydney, has vehemently denied the allegations.

“We discussed the situation in Rakhine state at considerable length today,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a closing press conference. “Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the matter comprehensively, at some considerable length herself. It’s a very complex problem … Everyone seeks to end the suffering that has been occasioned by the events, the conflict.”

Rohingya refugee Kobir Ahmed – now an Australian citizen – said Myanmar’s military is “not like other militaries of the world – killing people is nothing for them”.

The 44-year-old was one of many unhappy with Suu Kyi’s visit to Sydney – her presence seen as a crushing reminder of lost hope.

Suu Kyi’s presence sparked human rights protests, with thousands making their feelings known about her perceived inaction to halt what the UN says bears “the hallmarks of genocide”.

“The situation in [Myanmar] wasn’t this bad before Aung Sung Suu Kyi came in power,” said Ahmed, who arrived in Australia on a rickety boat crammed with more than 100 people in 2013. “Before, we were tortured, we weren’t allowed to work or move independently – we were under a lot of scrutiny – but we could at least live there. But after she emerged, we were all forced to leave the country.”

A bid by Australian lawyers to prosecute Suu Kyi for “crimes against humanity” was rejected Sunday after the country’s attorney general said she had immunity from prosecution.

Protesters also targeted Cambodian strongman Hun Sen and Vietnam’s Nguyen Xhan Phuc, who are accused of oppression.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said the crisis was “a concern for all Asean countries, and yet Asean is not able to intervene to force an outcome”.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak cited the flow of the displaced Rohingya as a potential new security threat, with desperate people more susceptible to radicalisation.

Tensions in the South China Sea remain a big worry for regional leaders, as Beijing continues to build artificial islands capable of hosting military installations – much to the chagrin of other claimants to the area.

Vietnam remains the most vocal in the dispute with the Philippines backing off under China-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims.

Canberra and Asean reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region”, without naming Beijing.

The leaders said they wanted to see an “early conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea”.

“We will uphold our commitment to the rules-based order and international law in the region, including the South China Sea,” stressed Turnbull.

They also committed to enhancing “the scope and sophistication of defence cooperation” while expressing “grave concern” about escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. The South East Asian leaders and Turnbull called on North Korea to end its nuclear programme and urged UN countries to implement sanctions.