KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Southeast Asian lawmakers on Wednesday urged their leaders to discuss Myanmar's Rohingya crisis at their upcoming summit in Malaysia, saying it has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea in the region since the Vietnam War.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million, is home to an estimated 1.3 million Muslim Rohingya, and most are considered stateless. Though many of their families arrived from Bangladesh generations ago, almost all are denied citizenship by Myanmar as well as Bangladesh.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a grouping of regional lawmakers, said in a statement that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations must abandon its policy of not interfering in each other's affairs, which has been used as a justification to avoid holding a discussion on the Rohingya issue.
"We are seeing a dire situation in ASEAN," Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago told a news conference ahead of the two-day summit that starts Monday. "The Rohingya issue has become an ASEAN problem because we have a huge amount of refugees fleeing into Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia."
"It has also led to a regional human trafficking epidemic. A human catastrophe is happening and ASEAN leaders cannot and should not hide behind the notion of non-interference," Santiago said.
The Rohingya issue has emerged as a sensitive topic as Myanmar tries to move away from decades of repressive military rule toward democracy.
In the last 2 1/2 years, attacks by Buddhist mobs have left hundreds of Rohingya dead and 140,000 trapped in camps where they live without access to adequate health care, education or jobs.
More than 100,000 Rohingya have also fled Myanmar's western shores by boat, according to estimates provided by experts tracking their movements.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians earlier released a report on the Rohingya crisis following a fact-finding mission to Myanmar in early April. The report will be sent to ASEAN leaders along with an appeal letter, Santiago said.
In the letter, which was released to the media, ASEAN Parliamentarians said the delegation had identified "troubling signs of anti-Muslim rhetoric and broader incitement to violence," and warned that this could increase in the run-up to Myanmar's elections in November.
"The protracted culture of abuse and resulting high risk of atrocities threaten Myanmar's political transition, put strains on regional economies and support the rise of extremist ideologies that pose security threats throughout Southeast Asia," the letter said.
The group said the human rights crisis in Myanmar was exacerbated by ASEAN's failure to take action and urged leaders to act to prevent a further escalation of the crisis that could affect the entire region.
The United Nations has also urged Myanmar to give Rohingya equal access to citizenship and to crack down on Buddhist violence against them and other Muslims.