Hundreds of boat people rescued off Indonesia's Aceh province

Rohingya migrants, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, enjoying the sunset at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province, on May 19, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Rohingya migrants, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, enjoying the sunset at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province, on May 19, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP) - Hundreds of starving boat people were rescued off Indonesia on Wednesday as Myanmar for the first time offered to help ease a regional migrant crisis blamed in part on its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority.

The change of tune from Yangon came as the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – facing global criticism for turning away rickety boats packed with starving migrants – gathered for talks on the issue.

Following appeals by UN chief Ban Ki Moon and Washington last week for the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to be rescued, Pope Francis issued his first comments on the issue on Tuesday.  “We think of the poor Rohingya of Myanmar. As they leave their land to escape persecution they do not know what will happen to them,” he said in a mass at the Vatican, likening the plight of the Rohingya to that of Christian and ethnic Yazidi people brutalised by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Nearly 3,000 boat people have already swum to shore or been rescued off Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown disrupted long-established smuggling routes, prompting some of the gangs responsible to abandon their human cargo at sea.

A total of 433 migrants believed to be from Myanmar were rescued in the early hours of Wednesday off Aceh in Indonesia, local officials and fisherman said.

“Their condition is very weak. Many are sick, they told me that some of their friends died from starvation,” said Teuku Nyak Idrus, a local fishermen involved in the rescue.

Those rescued included 30 children and 26 women, search and rescue officials said.  

With food and water supplies running low, some boats have drifted back and forth as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand refused to accept them, drawing international condemnation.  

Myanmar also has come under growing pressure to help stem the outflow of Muslim Rohingya, who are fleeing their homes in the country’s western Rakhine state after years of violence and discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Most head for Muslim-majority Malaysia.

- Myanmar softens hard line -

US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski said Myanmar must change its Rohingya policy.

“They need to be treated as citizens with dignity and with human rights,” he told CNN.  The Myanmar government’s “relationship with the international community is never going to be completely right and normal as long as this crisis continues”.

Myanmar state media quoted a foreign ministry statement on Wednesday as saying that the government “shares concerns” expressed by the international community and is “ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea”.

That marked the most conciliatory statement yet from the Myanmar government, which considers Rohingya to be foreigners from neighbouring Bangladesh and disavows all responsibility for them.  

Myanmar has previously said it may snub Thailand’s call for a regional summit on the issue, and was not present at Wednesday’s meeting of foreign ministers in Malaysia.

The UN’s refugee agency told AFP on Tuesday that it had received reports that at least 2,000 migrants had been stranded for weeks on boats off the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts.  They are being held on board amid horrid conditions by human traffickers who are demanding payment from the passengers to release them, a spokeswoman said.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman went into the talks on Wednesday morning with his counterparts Retno Marsudi of Indonesia, and Thailand’s Tanasak Patimapragorn in Malaysia’s administrative capital of Putrajaya.

The UN’s human rights and refugee chiefs have called on all three countries to launch search-and-rescue operations, bring boat people to land and begin procedures for assessing any refugee claims.

Anifah on Sunday called on Myanmar to engage in talks on the crisis, warning that Malaysia, as this year’s chair of the 10-country Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), may call an emergency regional meeting.  

While many Rohingya flee systematic persecution in Myanmar, the Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.