YANGON: The fate of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority took center stage Monday as regional ministers held crisis talks over a security crackdown that has drawn rare criticism from neighboring nations.
More than 27,000 Rohingya have fled northwestern Myanmar for Bangladesh since the start of November to escape a heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaign.
The army says it is hunting militants behind deadly raids on police posts in October.
But Rohingya survivors have described rape, murder and arson at the hands of security forces—accounts that have raised global alarm and galvanised protests in capitals around Southeast Asia.
The exodus has caused an unusual open spat within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the regional 10-member block that usually prides itself on consensus diplomacy and non-interference.
On Monday foreign ministers from the bloc met in Yangon for emergency talks, a gathering Malaysia said was the result of pressure building on Myanmar to resolve the crisis.
“Constant pressure from both the international community as well as Malaysia has led us to this point and to the retreat to be held,” Malaysia’s foreign minister Anifah Aman said ahead of the talks.
The vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population are denied citizenship and have lived for years under movement restrictions that many have likened to apartheid.
Thousands have fled over the years on rickety boats, seeking sanctuary in Muslim majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
New wave of anger
The latest crackdown in Rakhine generated a fresh wave of public anger, particularly in Malaysia, where tens of thousands of Rohingya eke out tough and often dangerous lives as undocumented workers.
Earlier this month Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak accused Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi of allowing “genocide” on her watch—an unusually strong rebuke by one Asean state of another.
Myanmar, which has vehemently denied the allegations of abuse, responded by angrily summoning Malaysia’s ambassador and banning its workers from going to the country.
Suu Kyi also held talks with the foreign minister of Indonesia this month after cancelling a visit to the country following protests and an attempted attack on the Myanmar embassy.
Ong Keng Yong, a former secretary-general of Asean, said neighboring nations feared the Rohingya crisis could spiral.
“This kind of issue, if it’s not well managed, will impact on the general picture of our peace and security in Asean,” he told Agence France-Presse.
He said Monday’s meeting would likely focus on stopping the violence, smoothing relations between members and better sharing of information between countries.
Myanmar has also seen a cascade of criticism from outside the region over its handling of the Rohingya crisis, including from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.
Last week UN rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticized the government’s “callous” handling of the crisis, describing it as “a lesson in how to make a bad situation worse.”
It is not the first time the plight of the Rohingya has spilled into a regional crisis.
In 2015 thousands of the stateless group were stranded at sea after authorities closed off a well-worn trafficking route through Thailand.
The overcrowded boats were ping-ponged between countries reluctant to accept them until global pressure eventually spurred Indonesia and Malaysia to let them land.