Myanmar navy carries out first rescue of migrant boat: Official

An ethnic Rohingya Muslim child looks at boats near a jetty at a refugee camp outside the city of Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state on May 22, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
An ethnic Rohingya Muslim child looks at boats near a jetty at a refugee camp outside the city of Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state on May 22, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

SITTWE, Myanmar (AFP) - Myanmar's navy has carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat, bringing 208 people to shore, an official said on Friday, as it faced mounting international pressure to tackle a regional migration crisis.

"A navy ship found two boats... on May 21 while on patrol," Tin Maung Swe, a senior official in the western state of Rakhine told AFP. He added that "about 200 Bengalis were on one of the boats".

"Bengalis" is a term often used pejoratively by Myanmar officials to describe the Muslim Rohingya minority, 1.3 million of whom live in the country but are not recognised as citizens.

The widespread persecution of the impoverished community in Rakhine state is one of the primary causes for the current regional exodus, alongside growing numbers trying to escape poverty in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Thai-owned boat was guided to shore before dawn on Friday in Maungdaw township - the departure point for many Rohingya boats headed south through the Bay of Bengal.

Photographs on the Ministry of Information's Facebook page showed scores of bare-chested men crammed into the hull of a wooden fishing vessel as it made land.

The second vessel was empty, Tin Maung Swe said.

"Necessary medical healthcare and foods have been provided" to the passengers at a temporary camp in Maungdaw, he said.

"All of the 208 on board are from Bangladesh," he added, repeating Myanmar's official line that the migrants are from over the border.

- US urges regional partnership -

On Thursday, the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia - whose countries are destination points for Rohingya fleeing persecution - met Myanmar officials as pressures mount to stem the migrant exodus from its shores.

Earlier this week, Malaysia and Indonesia relented on a hardline policy of pushing back the boats, and said their nations would accept the migrants for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

A US team led by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also in Naypyidaw for talks with Myanmar's President Thein Sein.

In a Facebook post released late Thursday, the US Embassy in Yangon said Blinken had "urged the Myanmar government to work with regional partners" in tackling the crisis.

The senior diplomat also "noted the contradictions inherent in the four race and religion bills to the government's efforts to protect human rights".

That was a reference to draft legislation that includes curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates, which are seen by activists as particularly discriminatory against women and minorities - with the already marginalised Rohingya likely to be affected.

Myanmar has seen surging Buddhist nationalism in recent years and spates of violence targeting Muslim minorities have raised doubts over its much vaunted reforms after decades of harsh military rule.

Both the US and UN have raised particular concerns about the laws proposed by President Thein Sein, seen as a response to campaigns by hardline Buddhist monks in a key election year.

Noble Peace Prize winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is yet to comment on the current crisis, a silence that observers attribute to fears over alienating a swathe of the electorate just months ahead of the polls.