BANGKOK - Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told his Asean colleagues on Wednesday (July 31) that it remains an "immediate priority" to start the repatriation of refugees who fled Myanmar's Rakhine state on a safe, voluntary and dignified basis.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr Balakrishnan, who is in Bangkok this week attending the annual Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting, said racial and ethnic discrimination remained a challenge in all societies and called on Asean member states to take a strong stand against it.
Later in the day, in the traditional joint communique, the foreign ministers supported Asean taking on a bigger and more visible role in providing humanitarian assistance, promoting sustainable development and facilitating the repatriation process.
More than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya fled from Myanmar's western Rakhine state to Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown against Rohingya insurgents in 2017. No official repatriations have taken place amid Rohingya fears over their security and future in Myanmar - where they are not recognised as an official ethnic group and face immense difficulties being legalised as citizens.
While Myanmar has rejected international attempts to investigate its military for the alleged atrocities, it worked with Asean to conduct a Preliminary Needs Assessment for repatriation.
The report was heavily criticised for whitewashing what some parties have likened to ethnic cleansing.
The Asean foreign ministers' joint statement called for a comprehensive assessment of needs to be conducted at suitable intervals, and said: "We stressed the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives."
Meanwhile, Dr Balakrishnan welcomed Asean's commitment and effort in addressing environmental and climate challenges, including combating marine pollution, illegal movement of waste, and transboundary haze pollution, said the statement from Singapore's Foreign Ministry.
"While Minister Balakrishnan noted that the Asean region had not experienced prolonged periods of haze pollution in the last three years due to the strong political will of Asean Member States in tackling the problem, it remained worrying that the total number of hot spots this year had exceeded that of the same period last year.
"Although good progress had been made in combating transboundary haze pollution, Minister Balakrishnan stressed the need to maintain efforts on that front," the statement said.
The Asean foreign ministers' meet, followed by dialogues with Asean's partners as well as the East Asia Summit and Asean Regional Forum, are being convened as several issues cloud regional security.
The growing US-China trade war is weighing on regional growth, while a spat between Japan and South Korea over high-technology material and wartime forced labour has raised questions over regional security arrangements, amid continued missile tests by nuclear-armed North Korea that took place as recently as Wednesday.
Stand-offs among rival claimants in the strategic South China Sea - which include China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - continued this week.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, in remarks earlier on Wednesday, urged Asean to be more agile and outward-looking.
"Politically and economically, we are witnessing increased nationalism that sometimes could run counter to our shared long-term interests," he said.
"While leaders must look after their own peoples, we must recognise that looking inward and being myopic is not our option... In safeguarding the livelihood and well-being of our peoples amid a great turmoil, we must be more onward- and forward-looking than ever before.
"We must choose to enlarge the piece of pie that we are sharing through free flow of trade and commerce, and not adopting the beggar-thy-neighbour attitude and approach."