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Burma on Thursday rejected the inclusion of talks on the country’s Rohingya minority at the first meeting of South-East Asian foreign ministers to be hosted by the once pariah state.
The country will hold its first meeting of Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Bagan on Thursday, and its first ASEAN summit in Naypyidaw, the capital, in early May.
“The Bengali issue is our internal affair and we will not discuss it in the ASEAN meetings, even if member countries ask for it,” said Ye Htut, a spokesman for Burma’s President Thein Sein.
Burmese government officials refer to the Rohingya Muslim minority group as “Bengalis.”
Sectarian violence in Arakan State in the west of the mainly Buddhist country in 2012 left at least 167 dead, mostly Rohingyas.
The group is excluded from those eligible for Burmese citizenship by a 1982 law. Burma considers Rohingyas, some of whom have been in the country for generations, to be ethnic Bengalis from neighbouring Bangladesh. Many of their ancestors were brought to the Arakan area as labourers during the 1824-1948 British rule.
While excluding the Rohingya issue from the ASEAN agenda, Ye Htut said the government was willing to take advice on the conflict from the separate governments.
“They may have experience in solving such problems peacefully, so we will accept the advice that suits our country,” Ye Htut said.
The South China Sea dispute, involving conflicting territorial claims between China, Japan and various ASEAN countries, is one of the main threats to regional security and is often raised at ASEAN forums.
“We believe all parties accept that only negotiations can solve this problem and we will try our best to step up efforts to solve the South China Sea disputes,” Ye Htut said.
Burma has been a member of ASEAN since 1997, but was previously prevented from playing host to the group’s meetings and summits because of its pariah status in the international community.
Burma was ruled by a military junta between 1988 and 2010. But elected President Thein Sein has pushed through significant political reforms since coming to power in early 2011, prompting Western democracies to drop most of their sanctions against the country and normalize diplomatic ties.