VIENTIANE, LAO PDR — In a scene reminiscent of the days when Burma’s former military junta was regularly lambasted at international meetings, world leaders are again raising the issue of human rights abuses in the country’s border regions—this time at the 9th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM9) in the Laos capital Vientiane.
Burma’s President Thein Sein is attending the Nov. 5-6 meeting along with other heads of state and heads of government from Europe and Asia, including outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Russia President Dmitri Medvedev and French President Francois Hollande.
A spokesperson for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) traveling with Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is also in Vientiane, told The Irrawaddy that Hague said he was was “very concerned about the situation in Rakhine,” referring to Arakan State in western Burma.
Hague opened a new British embassy in Vientiane on Monday morning, after which the FCO spokesperson said that the foreign secretary is hoping to meet Thein Sein. He added, however, that the get-together is yet to be confirmed as of Monday afternoon.
“We would like the problems, the unresolved problems of the status of the Rohingya people to be addressed by the leaders in Burma across politics,” Hague earlier told reporters.
Earlier on Monday Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard sat with Thein Sein in the first bilateral meeting between the two countries’ leaders since 1984.
Gillard congratulated Thein Sein for his personal leadership of the country’s reforms, according to Australian reports of the meeting, but raised concerns about human rights. “More needs to happen on questions like human rights for ethnic minorities, so there is more to do, but we should be welcoming the journey that is being undertaken in Myanmar,” she said.
Today’s meeting with Gillard is expected to be followed by a visit to Australia by Thein Sein in December.
Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country and, like Burma, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), also raised the Rohingya issue. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was quoted by AFP as saying that “of course the matter to do with the Rohingya … is an issue of concern for Asean countries, for individual Asean countries.”
“We [Indonesia] wish very much for Myanmar to be able to address this problem in a positive way in the same way that it has on the overall democratic process,” he added, referring to changes such as the release of political prisoners, relaxation of media restrictions and the slow emergence of Burma’s Parliament as a key forum for debate and legislative change.
Burma will chair Asean in 2014, an offer made in late 2011 as a reward for reforms already underway in the longtime military-ruled country.
A heavy security presence in the usually quiet riverside Laotian capital has seen streets around the summit venue closed off to traffic, with machine-gun wielding soldiers and heavily armed police seen all over the city. There is little to no access to the delegates for media covering the summit, with the main meetings taking place in a separate hall a kilometer from the media center.
Campaign group Global Witness said that more than 100 families, or 500 people, were pushed off their land in the capital without their consent and with little compensation to make space for purpose-built accommodation for summit delegates.
ASEM9 marks a rare moment in the international new spotlight for Laos, which recently joined the World Trade Organization and has registered 8.3 percent economic growth this year.