By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela
Bangkok, Jun 26 (efe-epa).- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday highlighted the region’s successful management of the new coronavirus pandemic in a virtual leaders’ summit, in which the agenda also included the looming economic crisis, territorial disputes with China and the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
“Despite the complex developments of the pandemic, the ASEAN members have essentially kept the situation under control,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in his inaugural speech via video-conferencing.
“For many days now, in several ASEAN countries, there has been no new case of community transmission. While slower growth rates are projected for this year, ASEAN economies are expected to sustain stability,” added the leader, whose country holds the bloc’s chairmanship this year.
With over 138,000 confirmed cases and at least 4,000 registered deaths attributed to the new coronavirus, the region – with a population of 650-million – seems to have escaped the worst of the pandemic, especially compared to the disproportionate numbers thrown up by the disease in Europe and the Americas.
Regional nations, especially Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, were among the fastest to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak and although they have gradually lifted restrictions, the borders have remained practically closed to foreign tourism.
Some of them are studying the possibility of establishing “travel bubbles” to allow travel between countries believed to be at low-risk for the pandemic, mainly in the Asia-Oceania region.
Some leaders, such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, also acknowledged the limitations of healthcare systems in some of these countries and the higher vulnerability of their migrants towards Covid-19.
The annual ASEAN summit, which was held virtually for the first time since the bloc was established in 1967, had been postponed from its original date in April due to the pandemic.
The leaders took turns to speak via video-conferencing, and later released a joint statement committing to coordinate their response for softening the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis and boost unity in the region.
The members also agreed to continue negotiating a code of conduct with China to avoid conflicts in the disputed South China Sea and called for demilitarization of the area, which contains abundant natural reserves and serves as a strategic maritime passage.
In recent years, China has gradually increased its military presence in these waters and claims sovereignty over almost the entire region, including the Spratly and Paracel islands, which are also partly claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
In April, the Vietnamese authorities alleged that one of their fishing vessels had been sunk in the area by Chinese patrol boats, which have also had tense encounters with Philippine and Malaysian boats in the past.
Some nonprofits have criticized the violation of rights such as freedom of expression in Southeast Asia during the pandemic, apart from highlighting the lack of action by countries even as boats full of Rohingya refugees have been adrift at sea for weeks.
“ASEAN leaders, having done almost nothing for years, should dramatically rethink their approach to the Rohingya crisis,” Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement.
HRW alleged that Malaysia had denied entry to a number of Rohingya boats and forced them to return to high sea, also criticizing Thailand for announcing that it intended to do the same if the refugees tried to enter its territory.
Most of these boats depart from overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, which house nearly a million members of the mostly Muslim community which has fled neighboring Myanmar.
The Myanmar military is facing genocide charges in the International Court of Justice at the Hague for its campaigns against the Rohingyas in 2016 and 2017.
Myanmar authorities deny citizenship to the Rohingyas as well as stripping them of other rights, such as freedom of movement.
The ASEAN’s lack of solidarity towards the ethnic minority from Myanmar was apparent in the speech of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who said his country could not accept more Rohingya refugees due to the depletion of economic resources during the pandemic.