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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Asean summit wraps up with Rohingya issue unresolved

Planned repatriation shelved as leaders agree to assist effort to send minority back to Myanmar

Mahathir Mohamad, Aung San Suu Kyi and Rodrigo Duterte pose for a photo at the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore. AFP
Mahathir Mohamad, Aung San Suu Kyi and Rodrigo Duterte pose for a photo at the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore. AFP

A summit of South-east Asian leaders wrapped up in Singapore on Thursday with agreement on three major security issues: forging ahead with a code of conduct on the South China Sea dispute, supporting the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and sending a regional task force to assist in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

The closing of the summit coincided with scheduled transfer of the first batch of 2,260 Rohingya from camps in Bangladesh to temporary detention facilities across the border in Myanmar's Rakhine State. However, Bangladesh's refugee commission said the plan had been suspended because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return. The decision came after hundreds of refugees at one of the camps protested against their repatriation.

About one million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh following attacks on the minority in Myanmar that began in 2016, ostensibly in response to strikes on security posts by Rohingya insurgents. An agreement between the two countries for their return raised international concern in the absence of guarantees of their safety.

At the request of Myanmar, it was agreed the Asean bloc would send its Co-ordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management to assist with identifying the way forward on repatriation.

In a closing statement, the 10-member bloc said: “We expect the Independent Commission of Inquiry established by the Government of Myanmar to seek accountability by carrying out an independent and impartial investigation of the alleged human rights violations and related issues."

However, the head of the commission has said previously that the role of the body was not to apportion blame.

After days of meetings between the 10 member states, as well as with delegates from China, South Korea, India, Russia and the United States, Asean also reaffirmed its commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and agreed to a rough three-year time frame for drafting a code of conduct to regulate behaviour in the disputed territory.

Progress was made towards the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, but a framework for a final deal remains elusive. It will include Asean states, China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

Other major themes at the summit included cyber security, with Singapore set to head up a regional base to combat the threat. The bloc also reaffirmed its support for an agreement on counterterrorism and combating extremism that was signed in Myanmar earlier this year.

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Read more:

Asean sees code of conduct as best course in South China Sea

50 Years of Asean: How five ministers from South-East Asia forged the region's most important group

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The summit adopted seven policy documents, including on a smart cities framework, climate change and the rights of people with disabilities.

The bloc renewed its commitment to keep South-east Asia free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The group also reaffirmed its goal of becoming a drug-free zone, which comes as the regional chief of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime voiced concern about an explosion in methamphetamine production and the continued high output of opium from the Golden Triangle.

Speaking to press at the close of the conference, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated comments made in his opening address about the need for co-operation in the face of threats to multilateralism and the global rules-based order.