Foreign envoys head to Myanmar for talks after breakthrough in migrant crisis

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a news conference in Mexico City on April 30, 2015. Mr Blinken said he would raise the Myanmar government's discriminatory treatment of its Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which is
US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a news conference in Mexico City on April 30, 2015. Mr Blinken said he would raise the Myanmar government's discriminatory treatment of its Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which is widely blamed for fuelling the migrant crisis. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SITTWE, Myanmar (AFP) - Myanmar was braced on Thursday for its first talks with US and South-east Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores, as Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea.

Foreign ministers Anifah Aman of Malaysia and Retno Marsudi of Indonesia were to visit Naypyidaw a day after announcing that their countries would end a much-condemned policy of turning away boatloads of starving migrants.  

The policy about-turn was welcomed by the United States, whose Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also to meet with Myanmar officials in the capital Naypyidaw, as his country said it stood ready to take in some of the migrants.

Blinken said he would raise the Myanmar government’s treatment of its Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which is widely blamed for fuelling the crisis.

“We will be talking directly to the government of Myanmar about its own responsibilities to improve conditions in Rakhine state so that people don’t feel that their only choice is to put their lives at risk by leaving and taking to the sea,” Blinken said during a stop on Wednesday in Jakarta.  

But tensions with the former junta-run nation remained, and heading into Thursday’s talks, Myanmar’s government reiterated its refusal to recognise the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group.  It insists they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

“If they are going to discuss about Rohingya, as we have said before, we do not accept that term here,” said Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office.  But he confirmed that Myanmar would attend a broader regional summit planned on the crisis in Bangkok on May 29, after the government this week softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.

- Search and rescue -  

The talks come as Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered the navy to carry out search and rescue missions – the first proactive official move aimed at saving the migrants.

 “We have to prevent loss of life,” Najib said on his Facebook account, announcing the measure.  

The Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands annually, an outflow that has surged in recent years following sectarian violence pitting them against Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.  A major humanitarian crisis had loomed as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refused to take in boats overloaded with exhausted and dying Rohingya, as well as economic migrants from Bangladesh.  

But Malaysia and Indonesia relented, with Anifah and Marsudi announcing after talks in Malaysia’s capital on Wednesday that their nations would accept and care for boat people for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn also took part in Wednesday’s talks but Thailand did not sign on fully to the offer.  However, its foreign ministry later said it would no longer “push back migrants stranded in Thai waters”.  

News of the diplomatic breakthrough had yet to trickle down to the displaced Rohingya lodged in ramshackle camps around the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe.  But with the people-smuggling route to Thailand currently blocked, some Rohingya communities were instead preoccupied with buying back their loved ones off boats floating at sea awaiting transit south.

“I do not want to go. I saw what happened to the people in the sea and it’s scary,” one displaced Rohingya man told AFP from the Anauk San Pya camp.  

- US, others offer to help -  

Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coastlines of the three countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.  

Some traffickers are believed to have abandoned their human cargo at sea with scant food or water.

Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimated that about 7,000 people were still adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

The United States, Philippines and even Gambia in Africa have offered assistance or possible resettlement of Rohingya, evoking the coordinated response to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of boat people from Vietnam in the late 1970s.

“The US stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.

The United States would help the UN set up protection centres, and would consider requests to resettle some refugees, she said.

Hours before Malaysia and Indonesia changed tack, more than 400 starving migrants were rescued from their decrepit boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels on Wednesday.

The boat had bounced between Thailand and Malaysia in recent days, rejected by authorities, as images of its emaciated Rohingya passengers – captured by AFP and other media – shocked observers worldwide.