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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

Q: How have regional countries reacted?

A: The crisis has split Southeast Asia largely along religious lines. When ASEAN issued a tepid statement in September -- expressing support for Myanmar's government and even omitting the term Rohingya -- predominantly Muslim Malaysia distanced itself from the document.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has called on the United States, China and the United Nations to take action to resolve the refugee crisis. But critics say Razak is using the Rohingya issue to distract from a massive corruption scandal and to consolidate Muslim votes before elections next year.

Large anti-Myanmar protests have erupted in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country. Indonesia, where ASEAN is headquartered, has offered low-profile humanitarian assistance, setting up a hospital in Rakhine that treats members of all ethnic groups.

Thailand, which in past years has turned away Rohingya refugees attempting to flee Rakhine by boat, has supported Myanmar, a close ally. Singapore has hewed to the principle of noninterference.

Q: What could the ASEAN meeting accomplish?

A: The U.N. Security Council issued a statement this week calling on Myanmar to end the use of excessive force and allow full access to U.N. agencies investigating abuses. Human rights groups argue that regional leaders should raise pressure on Myanmar to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission.

The ASEAN meeting, along with an Asia-Pacific economic summit preceding it in Vietnam, affords a chance for strong action on a problem that "is among the worst human rights catastrophes in Asia in years," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.


"World leaders shouldn't return home from these summits without agreeing to targeted sanctions to pressure Burma to end its abuses and allow in independent observers and aid groups," Adams said.

Could Trump play a role? He has urged "strong and swift" action to end violence against the Rohingya, and his administration has withdrawn aid to Myanmar's military. Trump could use the crisis to needle the Obama administration, which staunchly supported Suu Kyi, but so far he has skirted human rights issues on his Asia trip.

Khin Zaw Win said ASEAN could not be taken seriously as a global body if the Rohingya were not on its agenda.

"ASEAN is trying to assert itself and take center stage in this part of the world," he said. "If this issue were to be swept under the carpet, it would really be very shabby."

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