Aus­tralia wor­ries about Rakhine, South China Sea

The Myanmar Times - - News - EI EI TOE LWIN eieitoel­win@mm­times.com

AUS­TRALIA has ex­pressed grave con­cern about se­cu­rity is­sues be­set­ting South­east Asia, es­pe­cially the fes­ter­ing tur­moil in North­ern Rakhine in Myan­mar and the nig­gling ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in the South China Sea, but it is pre­pared to level up co­op­er­a­tion with coun­tries in the re­gion.

Later in the month, Can­berra was to host a two-day sum­mit with lead­ers of the 10-coun­try As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN), which groups, Brunei, Cam­bo­dia, In­done­sia, Laos, Malaysia, Myan­mar, the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land and Viet­nam.

The Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade of Aus­tralia even hosted last month a group of ASEAN jour­nal­ists for a fa­mil­iari­sa­tion tour.

Al­though some an­a­lysts crit­i­cise Aus­tralia for its lit­tle in­volve­ment in re­solv­ing con­flicts in the re­gion in re­cent years, such as in the decades­old ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in the South China Sea and in the wors­en­ing prob­lem in north­ern Rakhine, Aus­tralian of­fi­cials said they are very con­cerned about the se­cu­rity of the sub-re­gion.

“Se­cu­rity is cru­cial for Aus­tralia and we have to cre­ate a plat­form of strong se­cu­rity for the re­gion,” an Aus­tralian diplo­mat said.

She said Aus­tralia un­der­stands the Rakhine cri­sis is a very com­plex is­sue that might be dif­fi­cult for Bangladesh and Myan­mar to re­solve by them­selves, and her coun­try is will­ing to help the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment in co­op­er­a­tion with other ASEAN coun­tries to come out with a durable so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.

The re­cent out­break of vi­o­lence in the area, which was trig­gered by at­tacks by fight­ers of Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army on sev­eral gov­ern­ment out­posts, has forced over 650,000 Rakhine Mus­lims to seek refuge in neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh since Au­gust.

“We are very con­cerned and we will work with Myan­mar and other coun­tries as we hope to come up with a so­lu­tion,” she said. “The Kofi An­nan re­port con­tains a lot of good rec­om­men­da­tions to im­ple­ment and was en­dorsed by the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment. We’d love to work with ASEAN and Myan­mar to find ways to move for­ward on im­ple­ment­ing them.”

On Fe­bru­ary 28, Aus­tralian Am­bas­sador to Myan­mar Ni­cholas Cop­pel met with State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the ad­min­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal of Nay Pyi Taw ahead of her visit to Aus­tralia for the ASEAN-Aus­tralia Spe­cial Sum­mit from March 17-18.

Cop­pel and the State Coun­sel­lor dis­cussed the sig­nif­i­cance of the sum­mit and how Aus­tralia can con­tinue to help Myan­mar ad­dress the coun­try’s chal­lenges, ac­cord­ing to a Myan­mar source.

The source said it is un­likely the Rakhine is­sue will be dis­cussed for­mally dur­ing the sum­mit in Syd­ney, where lead­ers of ASEAN coun­tries will join two im­por­tant events – a busi­ness sum­mit and counter-ter­ror­ism con­fer­ence.

Cop­pel also met with U Thaung Tun, min­is­ter for the Of­fice of the Union Gov­ern­ment and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, on Fri­day to dis­cuss cur­rent chal­lenges in Myan­mar and prepa­ra­tions for the spe­cial sum­mit.

U Thaung Tun will lead Myan­mar’s del­e­ga­tion to the counter-ter­ror­ism con­fer­ence that will un­der­score the fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance of re­gional col­lab­o­ra­tion to ad­dress the shared chal­lenges of ter­ror­ism and vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism.

Pro­fes­sor John Blax­land, di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, warned that the Rakhine cri­sis could spell more trou­ble for Myan­mar as well as for the whole sub-re­gion.

“This prob­lem … is fes­ter­ing and in my view po­ten­tially is go­ing to spin out of con­trol and gen­er­ate an­other wave of prob­lems, po­ten­tially worse than the last time, be­cause this time it must be in­fused with ji­hadist bands,” he said.

He said that pre­dom­i­nantly Bud­dhist ASEAN coun­tries such as Cam­bo­dia, Laos and Thai­land should en­gage Myan­mar in find­ing a res­o­lu­tion with the help of Mus­lim coun­tries such as In­done­sia and Malaysia.

Blax­land said Aus­tralia, Ja­pan and In­dia could join in the “col­lab­o­ra­tive mech­a­nism” to ad­dress the is­sue.

Aside from the Rakhine cri­sis, the gov­ern­ment is also con­cerned about the decades-old South China Sea ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes

A se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said Aus­tralia is keenly await­ing de­vel­op­ments in the code of con­duct cur­rently be­ing dis­cussed be­tween China and the ASEAN.

Ter­ri­to­ries in the South China Sea are claimed in whole or part by China, Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Brunei, In­done­sia, Malaysia, Brunei and Tai­wan.

He said Aus­tralia ex­pects the sign­ing of a legally bind­ing code of con­duct to re­duce the ten­sion in the area, which is con­sid­ered the world’s busiest sea lane.

But be­yond the se­cu­rity is­sues, the spe­cial sum­mit sig­nals a more in­ten­si­fied in­volve­ment of Aus­tralia in the sub-re­gion.

It will be the first time Aus­tralia will host this sum­mit since it be­came ASEAN’s first dia­logue part­ner in 1974.

“We have a deep eco­nomic in­ter­est in South­east Asia as Aus­tralia ex­ports in the re­gion are high,” an Aus­tralian of­fi­cial said. “Aus­tralia has to cre­ate an eco­nomic in­fra­struc­ture that would be ben­e­fi­cial for both sides.”

“We want a spe­cial sum­mit to work to­gether to come out with ideas, ini­tia­tives, pro­grammes that will take the part­ner­ship into the fu­ture,” he added.

ASEAN is the third largest trad­ing part­ner of Aus­tralia, with an es­ti­mated trade value amount­ing to US$46.5 bil­lion in 2016 (K62.26 tril­lion).

Kavi Chongkit­ta­vorn, a Bangkok­based ASEAN ex­pert who used to be edi­tor of The Myan­mar Times, said Aus­tralia wants to forge closer ties with ASEAN as it has a huge mar­ket of over 645 mil­lion peo­ple.

“Aus­tralia wants to en­sure peace and sta­bil­ity in the ASEAN re­gion as it would ben­e­fit from the grow­ing trade and eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion with all mem­bers,” he said.

Kavi noted that while Aus­tralia might not have been in­volved in re­solv­ing high-pro­file con­flicts in the re­gion in re­cent years, it played an ac­tive role in pro­mot­ing peace in Cam­bo­dia in the 1980s.

Now Aus­tralia wants to as­sist ASEAN with non-tra­di­tional threats such as cy­ber­se­cu­rity and ex­trem­ists and take on a much big­ger role as eco­nomic and se­cu­rity part­ner of ASEAN, he said.

Photo: Ei Ei Toe Lwin

A bor­der po­lice­man pa­trols the beach in Maung­daw, Rakhine State, in Oc­to­ber last year.

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