Malaysia leader alarmed by Myanmar's refugee crisis

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said Wednesday that more than 200,000 refugees have fled Myanmar to his country and urgently called for new ways to persuade Myanmar's ruling generals to resolve the civil conflict.

Anwar and his host, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., also discussed the simmering South China Sea territorial disputes, which have embroiled their countries along with China and other coastal states, and ways to further boost ties.

“I did express my concern about the contentious, unresolved Myanmar issue which is affecting Malaysia adversely due to the huge number of refugees exceeding 200,000 people now in Malaysia,” Anwar said.

Since the military takeover in Myanmar in 2021, security forces have killed thousands of civilians and army sweeps through the countryside have displaced more than 1 million people. In 2017, a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority drove more than 740,000 to flee across the border to Bangladesh, where they remain in refugee camps.

Marcos reiterated the need for the enforcement of a five-point peace plan forged by leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Myanmar's top general, but Anwar said new areas should be explored on “how Myanmar junta can be persuaded to work and collaborate as a team with the ASEAN and resolve the outstanding issues.”

The 10-nation ASEAN bloc has a bedrock principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other members. Anwar said the deadly crisis in Myanmar “cannot be considered as purely internal because it’s affecting the security and welfare of the region.”

ASEAN's peace plan calls for an immediate end to the violence, a visit by an ASEAN special envoy to foster dialogue among rival parties and provision of humanitarian aid. The military government initially agreed to it but later stymied efforts for compliance.

Western nations have taken a stronger action, including political and economic sanctions against the generals and their cronies. Under intense international pressure to do more, ASEAN leaders had excluded Myanmar’s generals from annual summits since 2021, sparking protests from the military leaders.

Anwar said without elaborating that he and Marcos discussed concerns over the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety. They agreed that ASEAN should take a more comprehensive approach as a bloc to try to achieve "an amicable resolution.”

Indonesia, which leads ASEAN this year, is not among the governments steadfastly challenging China’s territorial claims.

President Joko Widodo in 2020 reaffirmed his country’s sovereignty during a symbolic visit to Natuna Islands at the edge of the South China Sea, after the Chinese Foreign Ministry insisted that Chinese fishermen were free to conduct activities in part of the waters “whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not.”

China’s assertion drew a nationwide indignation in Indonesia and prompted the military to beef up its forces at the islands.

Marcos thanked Anwar for Malaysia's help in brokering peace talks between the government and the largest Muslim rebel separatist group in the southern Philippines. The talks led to a 2014 pact that established a more powerful and better-funded Muslim autonomous region now run by former Muslim guerrilla commanders under a transition arrangement.

The peace talks have been credited with easing decades of sporadic fighting that left tens of thousands of combatants and civilians dead.

Anwar said Malaysia will continue to support the peace effort. “It has to succeed in the interest of the Philippines and Malaysia and the region,” he said.