KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - South-east Asia must send a "very strong message" to Myanmar to stop oppressing its Rohingya minority, who are part of a surge in boat people raising fears of a regional humanitarian crisis, a Malaysian government official said Thursday.
Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said South-east Asia's growing refugee problem was due in large part to Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya, a Muslim minority that faces state discrimination and has been targeted in recent sectarian violence.
"Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people," Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi told AFP. "So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive."
Malaysia said this week it would turn away boats bearing desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh unless they are in imminent danger of sinking, following in the footsteps of neighbouring Indonesia.
At least 2,000 boat people have been rescued, swum to shore or turned away in Malaysia and Indonesia since last weekend.
Migrants groups warn that repelling boats could amount to a death sentence for people already at risk from starvation and disease after long weeks at sea, with recent arrivals saying many of their fellow passengers had died on the sea passage, their bodies thrown overboard.
Migrants-rights advocates also say thousands more men, women and children are believed stuck out at sea or abandoned by smugglers, who are trying to evade capture after a Thai police crackdown disrupted people-smuggling routes.
Malaysia already has tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who are drawn to the country's relative prosperity and the fact that it is Muslim-majority.
"We cannot keep being the only ones responsible for taking them in," Mr Wan Junaidi said.
He expects the issue to be taken up this year in further meetings of Asean.
Malaysia is this year's chair of Asean - which also includes Myanmar.
Asean members are forbidden from interfering in each other's internal affairs, but Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said recently the Rohingya problem was becoming an "international" one that needed to be discussed.
More than 1.3 million Rohingya - viewed by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities - live in Myanmar's western Rakhine State.
They are essentially stateless, with Buddhist-majority Myanmar denying them citizenship and treating them as unwanted foreigners.
Mr Wan Junaidi also took a shot at Bangladesh, another major source of migrants to Southeast Asia.
"Many come from Bangladesh. So what is happening in Bangladesh? Is that not supposed to be a democratic country? It seems there is a serious problem there," he said.