KUALA LUMPUR — Dissent surfaced again in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after Malaysia disavowed a statement issued by the bloc’s chairman, the Philippines, as misrepresenting “the reality” of an exodus of 430,000 ethnic Rohingya from Burma.
The grouping of 10 nations in one of the world’s fastest growing regions has long struggled to reconcile conflicting interests in tackling issues such as China’s claims over the South China Sea and the crisis facing the Muslim Rohingya.
“The Philippines, as chair, tolerates the public manifestation of dissenting voices,” the Philippine foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday.
The move showed a “new level of maturity” in pushing ASEAN’s principle of consensus when dealing with issues affecting national interests, it added.
Malaysia had made its position clear “in several ASEAN meetings” in New York, the ministry said, adding that it had to also take into account the views of other members, however.
On Sunday, Malaysia “disassociated itself” from the ASEAN chairman’s statement on the grounds that it misrepresented the “reality of the situation” and did not identify the Rohingya as one of the affected communities.
Burma, officially known as Myanmar, objects to the term Rohingya, saying the Muslims of its western state of Arakan are not a distinct ethnic group, but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Senior diplomats and foreign ministers of ASEAN nations discussed the contents of the statement on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York before it was published, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Malaysian government sources said.
No consensus was reached by the ASEAN foreign ministers, however, said two Malaysian government officials aware of the discussions.
The chairman’s statement released by the Philippines did not reflect Malaysia’s concerns, said one of the officials, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Malaysia has objected once before to a similar statement on the Arakan Crisis, but Sunday’s response was unexpected, as the grouping has an overriding policy of non-interference in domestic matters.
Myanmar must halt “atrocities which have unleashed a full-scale humanitarian crisis,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman urged on Sunday.
“Viable and long-term solutions to the root causes to the conflict must be found,” he said in a statement.
Dissent reflects strain
Malaysia’s dissent, however, only reflects strained ties in ASEAN, said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in the country’s capital.
“What’s truly exceptional here is not Malaysia’s move to dissociate itself from the statement,” he told Reuters. “It’s the failure of the Philippines to attempt to reflect the views of all ASEAN member states.”
In the statement, the foreign ministers condemned the attacks on Burma’s security forces and “all acts of violence which resulted in loss of civilian lives, destruction of homes and displacement of large numbers of people”.
More than 400 people have died and 430,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Arakan, also known as Rakhine, where a 25 August attack on military and police outposts by Rohingya militants provoked a military offensive the United Nations calls “ethnic cleansing”.