ASEAN chief: Rohingya issue
could destabilize the region

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan urges the international community to take a more effective stance and faster pace in helping settle Myanmar’s Rohingya problem, since the conflict poses strategic and security challenges that could destabilize Southeast Asia.

“They are now under tremendous pressure, pain and suffering. If the international community, including ASEAN, are not able to relieve that pressure and pain, conceivably, [the 1.5 million of Rohingyas] could become radicalized and the entire region could be destabilized, including the Malacca Straits,” Surin said in Jakarta on Monday.

If they became radicalized, he said, the area risked becoming a zone of violence that could damage cooperation in ASEAN and East Asia. “I think it has wider strategic and security implications.”

He also saw potential dangers for the major sea-lane of the Malacca Straits. The area serves as the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, linking major Asian economies such as India, China, Japan and South Korea.

Myanmar’s government said on Monday it had boosted security in the western state hit by ethnic unrest as the number of displaced rose to 28,000, most of whom were Muslims.

The latest violence between ethnic Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, which began Oct. 21, killed at least 84 people and injured 129 more, according to Myanmar’s government. Human rights groups believe the true toll could be far higher.

When asked about concrete ways ASEAN could prevent a worsening of the situation, Surin urged ASEAN to engage in humanitarian efforts, as had been done when Myanmar was hit by cyclone Nargis in 2008. “I think ASEAN is in the position to repeat what we had done in cyclone Nargis, that was humanitarian engagement — relieve them from the suffering.”

He also noted that help and support to relieve people from poverty, dislocation, displacement, should be extended to all sides, the Rohingya and the Rakhine people. “Let’s see what we can do to relieve them from poverty, shortages of food, shelter and sanitation.”

Matters regarding security, political, human rights and democracy issues, Surin said, would be the work of the government in Myanmar and the relevant international agencies.

Surin also underlined that the Rohingya problem was not a religious conflict between Muslim and Buddhist. “It is strategic and security issue. We have to be extremely careful.”

Rakhine state spokesman Myo Thant said that security had been stepped up in the state, with additional police and soldiers deployed, but he declined to give details.

The UN Development Program’s resident representative director in Myanmar, Ashok Nigam, said the figure of 28,000 displaced people was likely to rise because some who had fled along the coast by boat had yet to be counted.

An estimated 27,300 of those displaced were Muslims, Nigam said, adding that the UN figure was based on statistics from local authorities.

Human Rights Watch has said that the Rohingyas have suffered the brunt of the latest violence.

Tensions have simmered in the region since clashes first broke out in June, displacing 75,000 people — also mostly Muslims.

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