Asian Leaders Shy Away From Rohingya Crisis at Nepal Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- Leaders of India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and other Asian nations are gathering in Nepal today for a multilateral summit, but the most pressing regional issue didn’t even make it onto the agenda: The Rohingya crisis the United Nations said may amount to genocide.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are among those attending the technical cooperation meeting in Kathmandu with Myanmar’s President Win Myint, one year after security forces launched a campaign against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. The military drove more than 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh, where they’re now living in vast refugee camps.

Today’s meeting of BIMSTEC, or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

Yet it’s unlikely to discuss the Rohingya issue, despite a comprehensive United Nations report this week that called for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted for committing genocide and war crimes. The crisis was sparked a year ago when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 25 police and army posts, killing a dozen security officials in the eastern state of Rakhine. The military responded with what it calls “clearance operations.”

"The Rohingya crisis will not affect the BIMSTEC process, as it is all about economic and technical cooperation," Bangladesh’s junior foreign minister Shahriar Alam said in Dhaka on Aug. 29.

The exclusion does not surprise analysts.

India hopes BIMSTEC can promote economic growth and will probably keep sensitive issues to bilateral discussions, said Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London.

"New Delhi in particular would like to avoid bringing contentious issues in a forum that is, in any case, yet to demonstrate its viability," Pant said.

The forum still offers South Asian countries the chance to come together and deal with basic issues, says Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings India think-tank in New Delhi.

"You don’t even communicate with each other at the regional level," Xavier said. "You have very weak institutions. You don’t have basic infrastructure in place. The priority is the economic agenda."

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