Malaysia to hold three-nation talks over migrant crisis

This file photo taken on May 14, 2015, shows Rohingya migrants swimming to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after they jumped from a boat (right) drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea. -
This file photo taken on May 14, 2015, shows Rohingya migrants swimming to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after they jumped from a boat (right) drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea. -- PHOTO: AFP

But Kuala Lumpur unable to lock in crucial meeting with Myanmar

MALAYSIA will hold talks with Indonesia and Thailand this week as it seeks a solution to the crisis in the three countries' shared maritime border, where thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshis are languishing in boats out at sea.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said yesterday that he would discuss with his Indonesian and Thai counterparts ways to end what the United Nations has warned could result in a massive humanitarian crisis. He was speaking to reporters after meeting Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu.

As many as 8,000 boat people, mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar but also some Bangladeshis, are adrift at sea after they were turned away by countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Many of them had been abandoned by people smugglers spooked by Thailand's ongoing crackdown on human trafficking.

An initial group of 1,100 migrants had been allowed to land on Malaysia's resort island of Langkawi on May 10, while another 1,400 landed last week in Aceh, Indonesia. The BBC reported yesterday that about 100 people had died after a fight broke out over food on board a boat that landed in Aceh last Friday.

Crucially, Malaysia - this year's chair of the 10-member Asean - has been unable to lock in an appointment with Myanmar to address the stream of Rohingya refugees fleeing poverty and discrimination - sometimes violent - in the latter's Rakhine state.

Datuk Seri Anifah was quoted as saying by The New Straits Times that Malaysia was looking for a solution and "currently giving humanitarian assistance... but I have already stated we cannot afford to accept more of them as a huge number already exist here, and so far no country wants to settle them".

"I hope Myanmar will sit with us to find solutions before we take it to the international level. If necessary, we will call for an emergency Asean meeting as suggested by the Prime Minister (Najib Razak)," The Star newspaper quoted him as saying.

A Foreign Ministry official told The Straits Times that Malaysia would hold tripartite talks with Indonesia and Thailand's foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

"Myanmar agreed (to a meeting) but (we are) not sure where or when yet," the official said.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin also called on Myanmar to take responsibility to solve its refugee problem internally. "We do not want to give the wrong signal to this group. If they are being treated accordingly, we are worried that thousands more will land on our shores. Eventually, the burden will be borne by Asean countries neighbouring Myanmar," he was quoted by the Bernama news agency as saying yesterday.

Mr Anifah also said Mr Abul Hassan explained that the Rohingyas - 50,000 of whom are already seeking refuge in Malaysia - are not considered Bangladesh's citizens despite Myanmar insisting that they had migrated illegally from the country.

However, as some of those who landed in Langkawi were reported to be from Bangladesh, Mr Abul Hassan has given his assurance of cooperation with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to resolve the issue.

shannont@sph.com.sg