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Q&A: What will Asia do about the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its doorstep?

Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-nation regional bloc encompassing more than 600 million people, will mark its 50th anniversary at a summit beginning Sunday in the Philippines. Attendees are to include President Donald Trump, concluding his first official visit to Asia.

With a rare moment in the global spotlight, ASEAN faces a crucial question: Will it address the humanitarian catastrophe involving Rohingya Muslims that is unfolding on its doorstep?

United Nations officials have described the exodus of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar -- an ASEAN member state -- as ethnic cleansing. The United States has withdrawn assistance from Myanmar army units it blames for driving members of the ethnic and religious minority from their homes.

But ASEAN, which maintains a policy of noninterference in members' domestic affairs, has remained mostly silent. The summit website has posted condolences to victims of bombings in Iraq and hurricanes in the Caribbean -- but nothing on what international aid agencies describe as the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis.

Q: What is the Rohingya crisis?

A: In late August, the army in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, responded to a series of militant attacks by unleashing a scorched-earth campaign across northern Rakhine state in the country's west, home to more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims.

Humanitarian groups estimate that more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the onslaught and settled in overcrowded refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.

Because journalists and independent agencies have been, in effect, barred from northern Rakhine, it has not been possible to assess the extent of the damage or how many people were killed.

Refugees who reached Bangladesh -- including children who were separated from their parents -- have told aid workers that Myanmar soldiers burned their homes, sexually assaulted and executed villagers and shot others as they fled.

Q: How serious is the humanitarian situation?

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