Asean, Australia doing their best for peace in Rakhine

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a joint press conference at the close of the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Sydney yesterday.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a joint press conference at the close of the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Sydney yesterday.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Leaders at summit also discuss flashpoints, including South China Sea and North Korea

Asean and Australia are doing their best to help Myanmar re-establish stability and tranquillity in its Rakhine state, while keeping an eye on whether the crisis would pose a security threat to the region.

The humanitarian crisis was "comprehensively discussed" at the inaugural Asean-Australia Special Summit, where leaders also discussed flashpoints including the South China Sea and North Korea.

They also reiterated their commitment to a rules-based order and enhancing free trade and investment while resisting protectionism, so the region can continue to grow.

At a press conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the summit's close yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi had sought humanitarian and capacity-building support from Asean and others.

"So our goal is to support a peaceful and speedy resolution of the humanitarian problems - humanitarian disaster, truthfully - that has resulted from the conflict. It was certainly an issue that has been discussed very constructively in our meeting," Mr Turnbull added.

Both leaders were asked if Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was correct in saying that the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar could become a serious security threat for the region.

At a counter-terrorism conference last Saturday, Datuk Seri Najib had said - while sharing the same stage as Ms Suu Kyi: "Rakhine with thousands of despairing... people who see no hope in the future will be a fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment by (ISIS) and affiliated groups."

PM Lee said yesterday that he did not have any specific intelligence on whether there were terrorist groups in Rakhine, but added: "These are possibilities which you cannot rule out and which you have to keep on being on the watch out for. And we do our best to help the governments to re-establish stability and tranquillity in the situation."

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state for Bangladesh after militant attacks last August sparked a crackdown led by security forces. Bangladesh and Myanmar have reached a deal to begin the repatriation of Rohingya, but there has been little progress.

Singapore is Asean chair this year. PM Lee, in opening remarks at the press conference, noted that while the issue is of concern to all Asean countries, Asean is not able to intervene and force an outcome.

"But we are working together in consultation with Myanmar to provide humanitarian assistance so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives," he said.

A statement at the end of the summit also addressed the South China Sea. It said Australia and Asean look forward to the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct, as part of efforts to maintain peace, stability, maritime security, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'Asean, Australia doing their best for peace in Rakhine'. Print Edition | Subscribe