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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) cannot pressure Burma on the issue of Rohingya citizenship, but should step up humanitarian assistance to Arakan state or risk regional instability, Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said on Friday.
Speaking ahead of the 21st ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, he stressed that it was not the organisation’s role to meddle in a member state’s internal legal affairs.
“If a government says these people are not citizens, it is not for the ASEAN to say change your laws, change your constitution and accept these people,” he said.
But he warned that unless the ASEAN community steps up their humanitarian assistance to the conflict-torn region, the stateless Muslim minority could easily be radicalised.
“I think the elements are rather ripe, if not for terrorism then for radicalisation or extremism, and that is the precursor for more violent actions later on.”
The conflict was raised at the meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers on Saturday, with participants voicing concerns over its impact on Burma’s nascent reconciliation process. Pitsuwan added that additional bilateral discussions are likely to be held behind the scenes during the summit.
On Friday, President Thein Sein told the UN in a letter that he is willing to consider new rights for the Rohingya minority, including citizenship, work permits and freedom of movement, but stopped short of making any commitments.
While the UN called the letter “a step in the right direction”, it is likely to fuel concern that Thein Sein is paying lip service to human rights issues ahead of US President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to the country. Earlier this week, activists slammed the government’s latest mass amnesty — which included no political prisoners — as a cynical political ploy to curry the west’s favour.
On Monday, Obama will become the first US president to visit Burma, where he is set to meet with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Burmese government has come under fire for its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya, since violence flared between them and Arakanese Buddhists in early June and again last month, resulting in the deaths of over 150 people. Human rights activists have accused the Burmese regime of siding with the Buddhist majority.
Pitsuwan warned that the entire region’s security could be endangered if a resolution is not sought.
“If these people feel hopeless, or that nobody cares, then we will have to take care of ourselves, the safety and security of the Malacca straits themselves could be affected,” he said, echoing comments made to reporters in Jakarta earlier this month.
He warned of a fresh exodus of Rohingya Muslims from northern Arakan state through the Malacca straits – a region that is key to Southeast Asia’s economic interests.
Between 65-75,000 ships pass through the Malacca straits each year, he said, with 80-85% of East Asia’s energy resources coming from the Middle East or Southeast Asia.
“Any instability in this region will have implications for the energy security of those countries too.”
The UN estimates that some 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma, where they are considered illegal Bengali immigrants and denied citizenship, although many have lived there for generations.