Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday hewed to the group’s practice of reaching the least provocative consensus possible in discussions of such divisive issues as Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis and China‘s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
A two-day Foreign Ministers’ Retreat was the regional group’s first meeting since Thailand took over its annual chairmanship.
The host’s summary of the meeting emphasized the humanitarian role ASEAN members could play in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where more than 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority fled from a brutal government counterinsurgency campaign.
Standard ASEAN practice is to avoid criticizing what are considered each country’s domestic affairs. But Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis is also a regional problem, because of the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has generated, justifying discussion by the group.
ASEAN has plans to send a team to Rakhine, but Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at a closing news conference said its mission had been delayed because of a stalemate on the ground.
“Once things are cleared, then you will be seeing more visibly the presence of the collective ASEAN efforts in Myanmar and Rakhine State,” he said.
Don said the group suggested that Myanmar should “address the root causes of the conflict” and create “a conducive environment” so that affected communities can rebuild their lives.
Myanmar has previously acknowledged similar suggestions but done little to act on them.
ASEAN offered to act as a coordinator with U.N. agencies on the planned future repatriation of the Rohingya currently sheltering at camps in Bangladesh, Don said.
Many Rohingya are reluctant to return without more guarantees of safety and the prospect of obtaining citizenship, which is generally denied to them.
Myanmar was represented at the meeting by Minister for International Cooperation Kyaw Tin. Its foreign minister is Aung San Suu Kyi, but she is also the country’s executive leader and often delegates foreign minister duties to others.
The ministers also claimed progress on concluding a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, long touted as a way of avoiding volatile confrontations in the disputed waters.
Several ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have the territorial interests directly threatened by Chinese claims in the sea, while others, either nervous about offending their giant neighbor to the north or maintaining vital economic ties with Beijing, are less concerned.
The meeting statement gave a nod to China’s critics by saying the ministers “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area.” By extending the size of reefs and islands and establishing military and civilian facilities on them, Beijing strengthens its claims to the adjacent waters.