KUALA LUMPUR - Asean member states agreed on Friday to strengthen laws and enforcement to tighten the noose around human trafficking rings that have been blamed for the thousands of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar heading to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia under dire conditions.
The regional bloc also agreed to the sharing of intelligence to combat people smuggling and adopt an Asean Convention against Trafficking in Persons in a security ministers meeting in September.
They resolved to offer mutual legal assistance to ensure that all states "are well-equipped to prosecute perpetrators of the heinous crime" of human trafficking.
The consensus was reached at an emergency ministerial meeting here on irregular movement of persons attended by all 10 members of the South-east Asian group.
Asean chair Malaysia - despite being the main destination of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and stateless Rohingya refugees fleeing oppression in Myanmar - rallied behind Myanmar, which has continued to reject calls to recognise the Rohingya as citizens.
Insisting that only a third of the boat arrivals are Rohingya, with the rest coming from Bangladesh and further up the Bay of Bengal, Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters that "ït is unfair to point the finger solely at Myanmar".
"Myanmar will work with other Asean countries in terms of law and surveillance and taking legal action against human trafficking syndicates. I am impressed with Myanmar," he said.
However, he said that the specific issues of persecution faced by the Rohingya in the Rakhine province was "not discussed" as "we shouldn't be involved in their domestic matters".
But he indicated that Myanmar knew it had to address the problem as it needed support from Asean in a humanitarian crisis that has gained global attention after as many as 7,000 people were left adrift in waters between Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in May after smugglers abandoned their boats due to fears of a crackdown by authorities.
The discovery of mass graves on the border of Thailand and Malaysia has further compelled these countries to act. Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said on Friday that 18 suspects have been arrested since the discovery of 139 mass graves at the end of May.
Myanmar police have also crippled a people smuggling ring, its transnational crime chief told reporters on Friday, after it nabbed 36 out of 39 suspects in collaboration with Thai counterparts.
Three are still at large, but the key man, a Thai married to a Myanmar woman, was arrested in Yangon, said transnational crime division chief Soe Myaing.
"The Myanmar involved are lower ranking while the Thais are kingpins. Investigations are 70 to 80 per cent complete and can be wrapped up in less than a month," he added.
The meeting also agreed to set up a trust fund to cover the cost of humanitarian and relief efforts, although the contribution from each member state has yet to be finalised.
Datuk Seri Zahid said he proposed that each country inject US$100,000 (S$134,906) each, although Singapore had offered to pump in double the amount as a startup sum.