BANDAR SERI BAGAWAN — At the 23rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and related summits in Brunei-Darussalam this week, there has seemingly been scant mention of the ongoing sectarian violence in Burma, which will chair the bloc for the first time in 2014.
Asked if the issue had come up during the course of the various meetings and summits ongoing in Brunei, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa told The Irrawaddy, “Not to my recollection, except at the Asean meeting, when the Myanmar delegation briefed us on the situation in their country.”
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and—along with Malaysia and summit host Brunei—is one of three Muslim-majority Asean members.
Much of the recent sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Burma has been directed at the country’s estimated five million-strong Muslim minority, as well as against the stateless Rohingya—a Muslim group regarded by the Burmese government as migrants from Bangladesh.
The latest bout of inter-communal violence came last week, in Thandwe, a town in troubled Arakan state in Burma’s west, located close to a well-known tourist resort at Ngapali Beach.
Wednesday’s Asean summit, a meeting of the ten member-states of the Southeast Asian bloc, preceded a series of regional meetings involving Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US, as well as the Asean countries.
The meetings are overshadowed by the absence of US President Barack Obama, who cancelled a regional tour due to political wrangles at home. Secretary of State John Kerry filled in for Obama, and on Thursday morning he had a bilateral meeting with Burma’s President Thein Sein.
Burma’s Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy that the meeting was brief. “The Secretary of State fully understands the challenges we are facing in the reform process and said that the United States wants to give full support to us in this.”
The remaining American sanctions on Burma were not among the topics of the fifteen-minute closed-door meeting, Ye Htut said. And asked if Sec. Kerry had raised the issue of Burma’s sectarian troubles, the Burma government spokesman said, “That’s what we call among the challenges we are facing.”
At a handover ceremony later Thursday, Brunei will pass the rotating Asean chairmanship to Burma, which will host the various meetings and summits on behalf of the bloc next year—a crucial final year before the group establishes a hoped-for closer-knit Asean economic community in 2015.
Sec. Ramon Carandang, spokesman for Philippines President Benigno Aquino, said Asean member-states are confident that Burma can prove a successful host, citing Naypyidaw’s staging of the World Economic Forum earlier in 2013. “On the whole they managed it pretty well,” he said.
Asked if he thought Burma is ready to chair Asean, Indonesian Foreign Minister Natelagawa told The Irrawaddy, “I’m looking at it the other way around, and I am convinced that the Myanmar chairmanship of Asean will provide additional momentum to lock in the reform efforts that are already underway.”
Asked the same question, the bloc’s Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said, “We are confident that Myanmar will be able to undertake its chairmanship effectively.”
Philippines spokesman Sec. Carandang said, “The best thing the international community can do is try support the changes in Myanmar.”