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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference at The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Nonthaburi, Thailand, Nov. 3, 2019.The Associated Press

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern Sunday over the plight of the 730,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, calling on Myanmar’s government to take responsibility by dealing with the “root causes” of their flight to Bangladesh and working toward their safe repatriation.

Guterres spoke as he held a meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs. ASEAN leaders meet annually to try to work out common positions on pressing issues, but also maintain a policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs.

The ASEAN ministers’ chairman statement, released by host Thailand summarizing the consensus positions of the group, accentuated the positive in suggesting how to deal with the Rakhine crisis, without directly acknowledging the major problems of Bangladesh hosting such a vast number of refugees and the hurdles in sending them home.

The statement pointed out the various agreements already agreed upon involving repatriation while reiterating “the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives.”

Its words partially echoed those of Guterres, who earlier said he remains “deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar, including Rakhine state, and the plight of the massive number of refugees still living increasingly in difficult conditions.”

“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.

Guterres said Myanmar 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.”

ASEAN members’ attitudes toward the Rakhine crisis vary. While most of the group’s 10 countries are content to honour the organization’s principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have Muslim-majority populations, would prefer ASEAN take a more pro-active 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 Myanmar’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.

U.N. investigators and human rights groups say Myanmar 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 U.N. fact-finding mission urged that Myanmar be held responsible in international legal forums for alleged genocide against its Muslim Rohingya minority.

The ASEAN chairman’s statement said the regional group expects an investigative commission established by Myanmar’s government to carry out “an independent and impartial investigation into alleged human rights violations and related issues.” U.N. experts and independent human rights groups dismiss the possibility that the commission could conduct a fair investigation, noting that some members are considered to be biased in favour of the military.

The Rohingya have been harshly discriminated against, even though many have been settled in Myanmar for generations. Many in Myanmar consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and they have largely been denied citizenship and most of its privileges.

Myanmar refuses to call the Rohingya by their self-chosen name, and instead refers to them as Bengalis. Guterres in his statement avoided using either term, though the details and context made clear he was talking about the Rohingya.

Although Myanmar and Bangladesh have a formal agreement to repatriate the refugees, none have officially returned, fearing for their safety. Rights groups say Myanmar has neither made adequate arrangements for their return nor set up a process ensuring they will have full civil rights.

Guterres also spoke about the urgent need for measures to cope with climate change, a subject that has become his priority.

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