MANILA: Southeast Asian leaders kept silent over accusations of ethnic cleansing carried out by Myanmar's army in a statement Thursday, instead expressing support for the country's efforts to bring peace and harmony to northern Rakhine state.
More than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar since a military crackdown was launched in Rakhine in August, which the United Nations and watchdogs have said amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Rights groups had urged the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a strong stand on the crisis in its summit in Manila this week.
But a statement released by the bloc after the meeting failed to condemn the atrocities and merely said an unspecified number of leaders backed Myanmar's humanitarian relief programme in Rakhine.
"They expressed support to the Myanmar Government in its efforts to bring peace, stability, rule of law and to promote harmony and reconciliation between the various communities," it said.
Myanmar authorities insist the military campaign was aimed at rooting out Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on August 25.
But the UN and rights groups have documented civilian accounts of murder, rape and arson at the hands of the army.
The ASEAN statement was issued hours after watchdogs released reports on "widespread and systematic attacks" on Rohingya civilians including troops gang-raping women and girls.
Myanmar's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended the ASEAN summit where the UN chief and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with her on the Rohingya crisis.
The bloc has a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of members despite criticism over the years that it is little more than a talking shop.
Ironically Suu Kyi was one of those who once criticised ASEAN for its quiescence on regional rights abuses, when she was peacefully confronting years of junta rule.
In a July 1999 article for Thai daily The Nation, Suu Kyi called on ASEAN to harden its stance towards the junta in Yangon, saying the group did not have a "clear conscience" over human rights.
"This policy of non-interference is just an excuse for not helping. In this day and age you cannot avoid interference in the matters of other countries," she wrote.
ASEAN groups Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam as well as Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, where there have been protests on the treatment of the Rohingya.
Thursday's ASEAN statement stressed the importance of increasing humanitarian access to Rakhine and helping affected communities.
The leaders also urged Myanmar to implement the recommendations of a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan to scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship for the Rohingya.
The statement did not use the word "Rohingya" to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority, an incendiary term for Buddhist nationalists who label the group "Bengalis".
Amnesty International has said the bloc's response to the Rohingya crisis has been "toothless at best".