UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has expressed concern over the plight of the 730,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma’s Rakhine state.
He called on Burma’s government to take responsibility by dealing with the root causes of their flight and working towards their safe repatriation.
Mr Guterres spoke as he met leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Burma belongs, in Nonthaburi, Thailand.
ASEAN leaders meet annually to try to work out common policies on pressing issues, but also maintain a policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs.
A draft of a statement to be issued by ASEAN leaders takes a generally weak tone toward how Burma should deal with its Rakhine crisis.
“I remain deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar (Burma), including Rakhine state, and the plight of the massive number of refugees still living increasingly in difficult conditions,” said Mr Guterres.
“It remains, of course, Myanmar’s responsibility to address the root causes and ensure a conducive environment for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees to Rakhine state, in accordance with international norms and standards.”
He said Burma should take measures “to facilitate dialogue with refugees and pursue confidence-building measures” and “to ensure humanitarian actors have full and unfettered access to areas of return, as well as communities in need”.
“I welcome ASEAN’s recent engagement with Myanmar and encourage its continued efforts,” he added.
ASEAN members’ attitudes toward the Rakhine crisis vary.
While most countries are content to honour the organisation’s principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have Muslim-majority populations, would prefer ASEAN take a more proactive position in ensuring just treatment of the Rohingya.
ASEAN’s active involvement is mostly limited to helping with humanitarian aid.
The Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after Burma’s military began a harsh counter-insurgency campaign against them in August 2017 in response to an attack by a fringe group of Rohingya militants.
UN investigators and human rights groups say Burmese security forces carried out mass rapes, killings and burning of Rohingya homes, for which they could be charged with ethnic cleansing, or even genocide.
In September, a special UN fact-finding mission urged that Burma be held responsible in international legal forums for alleged genocide against its Muslim Rohingya minority.
The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said in a report wrapping up two years of documentation of human rights violations by security forces that counter-insurgency operations in 2017 included “genocidal acts”.
The Rohingya have been harshly discriminated against, even though many have been settled in Burma for generations. Many in Burma consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and they have largely been denied citizenship and most of its privileges.
Burma refuses to call the Rohingya by their self-chosen name, and instead refers to them as Bengalis.
Mr Guterres avoided using either term in his statement, though the details and context made clear he was talking about the Rohingya.
Although Burma and Bangladesh have a formal agreement to repatriate the refugees, none have officially returned, fearing for their safety.
Rights groups say Burma has neither made adequate arrangements for their return nor set up a process ensuring they will have full civil rights.