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UN chief calls on Myanmar to ensure safe return of Rohingya

Aung San Suu Kyi defends her govt’s handling of refugee crisis amid mounting international pressure

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UN chief calls on Myanmar to ensure safe return of Rohingya

Myanmar’s de facto prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi (right) walks past UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres during the 10th ASEAN-UN Summit in Bangkok on Nov. 3. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

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United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres has raised fresh concerns over the plight of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state following the military crackdown of 2017.

Guterres was speaking at a summit in Bangkok on Nov. 3 attended by leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto prime minister.

He stressed Myanmar’s responsibility “to create a conducive environment for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees” but Suu Kyi defended her government’s handling of the Rohingya issue, calling the situation in Rakhine “a most complex one.”

The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner said the UN and its agencies had been in the region 10 times longer than the present government had been in office, so she was sure they appreciated the complexities of the refugee crisis.

She vowed that her government would not shirk its responsibility to protect the security and rights of all those affected. 

“Myanmar is fully committed to take back the verified returnees based on the bilateral agreement signed with Bangladesh and the trilateral agreement signed with UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and UNDP [the United Nations Development Program],” Suu Kyi added.

She expressed her appreciation to ASEAN, the ASEAN Secretariat and the AHA Center for their “constructive contribution to our efforts in creating the most suitable environment to which the displaced people can return in peace and security.”

'Evidence of increasing attacks'

ASEAN civil society groups have used the summit to criticize the deterioration of human rights in ASEAN and the bloc’s principle of non-interference, especially on the Rohingya crisis.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said there was evidence of increasing attacks on human rights defenders, often justified by newly passed repressive laws, plus the continued persecution of minority groups and marginalized people who were unable to defend themselves.

“ASEAN urgently needs to address these human rights issues but to do so it needs to override its non-interference principle that freezes the abusive status quo,” Robertson said.

ASEAN has always avoided criticizing Myanmar for its treatment of Rohingya. The United Nations has termed the military’s crackdown on the minority Muslim group a form of genocide but ASEAN has opted instead to focus on humanitarian aid.

Suu Kyi’s government and Myanmar’s military have come under intense pressure from the international community over reported atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine.

A UN fact-finding mission said there had been “genocidal acts” carried out in Rakhine by Myanmar’s military that also resulted in more than 740,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

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