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Malaysia calls Cayetano's statement on Rohingya crisis a 'misrepresentation of reality'

Rohingya Muslims, who travelled from Myanmar into Bangladesh, stretch their arms out to collect food items distributed by aid agencies near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. Bangladesh has been overwhelmed with more than 400,000 Rohingya who fled their homes in the last three weeks amid a crisis the U.N. describes as ethnic cleansing. Refugee camps were already beyond capacity and new arrivals were staying in schools or huddling in makeshift settlements. AP/Dar Yasin

MANILA, Philippines (Update 2, 10:51 a.m.) — Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano over the weekend released a statement as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the crisis in Rakhine state without referring to violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation and a member of ASEAN, disassociated itself from the ASEAN chairperson's position and described it as a "misrepresentation of the reality of the situation."

Malaysia's Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman, in a strongly worded disavowal, said Cayetano's statement "was not based on consensus."

"The statement (of Cayetano) also omits the Rohingyas as one of the affected communities," Aman said in a statement on Sunday.

Before the chair's statement, ASEAN has kept mum on the crisis involving Bangladesh and member-state Myanmar. Even rarer still is Malaysia's public opposition in the Southeast Asian bloc known for its "flexible engagement," "non-interference" and consensus.

Alan Peter Cayetano, the Philippines' foreign affairs secretary, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s 72nd session on Sept. 23, 2017 in New York City. UN/Cia Pak

The DFA secretary's statement issued on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sunday, condemned the attacks against Myanmar security forces and acts of violence "which resulted in loss of civilian lives, destruction of homes and displacement of thousands." It also expressed support for Myanmar's government "in its effort to bring peace, stability, rule of law" in the area.

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“The Foreign Ministers acknowledged that the situation in Rakhine State is a complex inter-communal issue with deep historical roots. They strongly urged all the parties involved to avoid actions that will further worsen the situation on the ground,” it reads.

Cayetano's statement, issued supposedly on behalf of the 10-member bloc, clearly sidesteps authorities' crimes against the minority Rohingya people in a crisis the United Nations' human rights chief earlier this month called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi told the Jakarta Post that the ASEAN chairperson's statement was a result of a closed-door meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN assembly on Saturday.

She described the decision of coming up with a statement from an informal gathering "quite out of the ordinary."

The chair's statement, she said, was expected to reflect the views of each ASEAN member-state. The final wording was left to Cayetano and no longer needed consensus of the ministers, Retno was quoted as saying.

She also offered to Cayetano Indonesia's four-point recommendation to end the Rakhina crisis: Restoring stability and security; maximum restraint and non-violence; protection of all persons regardless of race and religion; and the importance of immediate access to humanitarian assistance.

Only the last element in Indonesia's recommendation—that of access to humanitarian assistance—was included in Cayetano's final statement.

'Disproportionate'

Aman, Cayetano's Malaysian counterpart, said Malaysia's concerns were not reflected in the ASEAN chairman's statement.

He said that while Malaysia condemned the attacks against Myanmar security by the Rohingyan army, it called the subsequent clearance operations by Myanmar authorities “disproportionate” as it has lead to deaths of civilians and displacement of Rohingyas.

“We express grave concerns over such atrocities which have unleashed a full-scale humanitarian crisis that the world simply ignore but be compelled to act upon,” Aman said.

More than 400,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh to escape murder and destruction of villages in the Western state of Rakhine.

The Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have long experience persecutions as they are believed to be illegal immigrants.

Malaysia also urged Myanmar to end the violence and resolve the refugee problem.

“Viable and long-term solutions to the root causes of the conflict must be found in order for the Rohingyas and the affected communities to be able to rebuild their lives.

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been facing international pressure for her handling of the violence against Rohingyas.

The Nobel Peace Laureate, in a televised address, rejected international condemnation of the violence and insisted that “more than half” of Rohingya villages remain intact. 

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