Draft ASEAN chairman’s statement raises questions as bloc’s 31st summit winds down

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a press conference after the closing ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on November 14, 2017. / AFP

THE 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit — the second this year while the Philippines chairs the bloc — was set to end last night with a draft statement showing a blank section on the South China Sea and silent on the plight of Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

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The draft chairman’s statement — a version dated Nov. 11 and circulated among journalists — did express ASEAN leaders’ “grave concern over DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction — including nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missile technologies — which are in contravention of UNSC (United Nations Security Council) resolutions,” adding that they “strongly urged the DPRK to fully and immediately comply with its obligations arising from all the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions.”

The same draft showed a section on the South China Sea maritime dispute merely baring the inscription “Chair to provide,” while a section on maritime security and cooperation said only that ASEAN “underscored the importance of strengthening linkages in maritime cooperation to further promote mutual trust and confidence to ensure security, peace and stability including in ensuring safety and freedom of navigation and overflight.”

It compared to the draft of the 30th summit statement in April that cited “land reclamation and militarization that may further complicate the situation…” in a clear reference to China’s building of an artificial isle and installation of weapons systems, as well as runways and other facilities a little more than 200 kilometers west of Palawan that could accommodate military aircraft. The final version then struck out that mention but retained a reference to division among ASEAN leaders on how to deal with Beijing’s assertiveness in that vital sealane. “We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area,” it had read.

Mr. Duterte tried to keep the South China Sea dispute off the table for talks — saying in a speech last Sunday that “the South China Sea is better left untouched” — but Presidential Spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr. said in a press briefing on Monday that “at least two to three” ASEAN leaders raised the matter.

The Nov. 11 draft statement did not even contain a section on the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya. Mr. Roque had said, however, that the issue was raised “by two member states” of ASEAN with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was quoted as merely responding that her country would “welcome humanitarian assistance.”

Over 600,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military launched attacks in response to Rohingya militants’ raids on security posts in August. Media on the ground have since reported accounts of massacres and rapes, leading the United Nations to brand the military operations as tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

For political analyst Richard F. Heydarian, “what stands out [in the draft chairman’s statement] is what’s not there.”

“As far as I know, I don’t think that the Rohingya issue has been discussed in a way that it has to be discussed,” Mr. Heydarian said in an interview yesterday.

“What’s happening in Myanmar is a clear systematic persecution of a minority — bordering on genocide and already in the territory of ethnic cleansing — but you don’t see any of those international legal terms being reflected in the draft,” he noted.

“I think the draft is extremely soft — if not completely tangential — on dealing with the issue of Rohingya. So I am a little bit disappointed with that.”

Any reference to a South China Sea code of conduct, he added, should be scrutinized for “clear timetables” and whether anything will be legally binding on all parties. — with A.L. Balinbin

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