Myanmar says it’s not to blame for migrant crisis
YANGON, MAY 16
Myanmar refused to shoulder the blame for an escalating humanitarian crisis on Saturday, and cast doubts on whether it will attend a meeting to be hosted by Thailand later this month aimed at easing an emergency that has left boatloads of refugees stranded at sea.“We are not ignoring the migrant problem, but our leaders will decide whether to attend the meeting based on what is going to be discussed,” said Maj. Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar’s president. “We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”
Boats filled with more than 2,000 desperate and hungry refugees have arrived in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks, and thousands more migrants are believed to be adrift at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.
Many of those on the overcrowded vessels are ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Others are Bangladeshis fleeing poverty.
Both groups seem intent on reaching Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that has hosted more than 45,000 Rohingya over the years but now says it can’t accept any more. Indonesia and Thailand have voiced similar stances.
All three countries have their navies stationed in boats at maritime borders to push boats away or execute a so-called “help-on” policy of giving the boats food and water — and pointing them to other countries.
Myanmar appeared to direct some of the blame for the current crisis on its neighbors.
“From a humanitarian point of view, it’s sad that these people are being pushed out to sea by some countries,” said Zaw Htay, who heads the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein, who has not spoken publicly about the crisis since it escalated May 1.
Thailand has organized its May 29 regional meeting with officials from 15 countries to discuss the “root causes” of “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean.”
On Friday, Zaw Htay said that Myanmar’s government “will not attend a regional meeting hosted by Thailand if ‘Rohingya’ is mentioned on the invitation.” He accused governments of trying to divert their human smuggling and slavery problems by dumping the blame on Myanmar.
On Saturday, he said the official invitation still had not arrived.
An increasingly alarmed United Nations warned Friday against “floating coffins” and urged regional leaders to put human lives first. The United States urged governments not to push back new boat arrivals.
“The gravest violation of human rights are committed by those corrupt officials who are involved in human trafficking activities and colluded with the trafficking syndicates,” Zaw Htay said.
Thai authorities, long accused of turning a blind eye to human trafficking in exchange for pay, launched a crackdown May 1 after finding dozens of bodies buried at traffickers’ jungle camps on Thailand’s border with Malaysia. Dozens of Thai officials were arrested and more than 50 police are under investigation for complicity.
The U.N. calls the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. For decades, the Rohingya suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Denied citizenship by national law, they are effectively stateless.
In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left hundreds dead and sparked an exodus of an estimated 120,000 people who have boarded human traffickers’ boats to flee to other countries.
The flight helped fuel a longstanding human smuggling industry in the region.
Even the name Rohingya is taboo in Myanmar, which calls them “Bengalis” and insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in the predominantly Buddhist Southeast Asian country for generations.
Malaysia seeks Myanmar help on ‘catastrophe’ of migrant boatpeople
Langsa, MAY 16
Malaysia’s prime minister said on Saturday he would seek help from Myanmar to address the unfolding “humanitarian catastrophe” involving a wave of boatpeople flooding to Southeast Asia, thousands of whom are ethnic Rohingya fleeing oppression in the mainly Buddhist country.
Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have come under increasing pressure to rescue a wave of starving and helpless Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants after triggering outrage by turning them back out to sea with scarce food and nowhere to go.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said “we are liasing with the Myanmar government to get their response,” according to Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency.
“I hope they will give a positive response as the refugees were due to internal problems that we cannot interfere with, but we want to do something before it gets worse,” he said.
Myanmar’s cooperation is deemed vital to solving Southeast Asia’s biggest influx of boatpeople since the end of the Vietnam War.
But its government — which denies the Muslim Rohingya citizenship — has already rejected a Thai call for a regional summit on the issue on May 29, saying it was not their problem.
The UN refugee agency has reported a surge in departures from Bay of Bengal ports in recent months.
Activists say 8,000 people may be adrift on overcrowded vessels, with starvation and disease claiming lives, after a Thai crackdown crimped busy human-trafficking routes and spurred smugglers to abandon men, women and children at sea.
In one of the grimmest episodes yet, survivors of a boat that sank off the east coast of Sumatra island — among roughly 900 people rescued off Indonesia on Friday — described a bloody struggle for survival between Bangladeshis and Rohingya on board.
“They were killing each other, throwing people overboard,” said Sunarya, police chief of the city of Langsa near where they were rescued.
The packed boat had put to sea two months ago but was deserted this week by captain and crew, survivors said.
It was then turned away, first by Indonesia and then Malaysia, as the Rohingya won an onboard fight for the remaining food, said Bangladeshi survivor Muhammad Koyes. “When we asked for food, they beat us. The Bangladeshis were very weak, so we could not fight back,” he said.
Another survivor Absaruddin, 14, gave harrowing details of being kidnapped in the Bangladeshi town of Teknaf by traffickers determined to fill the boat with their lucrative human cargo.
A group of men pounced on Absaruddin and three of his teenage friends while they were having breakfast.
“They beat us, tied us up and took us onto the ship,” he told AFP, after he was rescued of Aceh.
“Before we could do anything we were at sea with hundreds of Bangladeshis and Rohingya.”
– ‘Humanitarian catastrophe’ –
Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Sumatra’s Aceh province after managing to get ashore in recent days, while more than 1,100 had reached Malaysia.
About 100 made it to a southern Thai island, a local official said on Friday, while a boat which was found by journalists on Thursday continued to drift between Thai and Malaysian waters, its engine seemingly damaged.
Najib said he told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the situation was “a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The appalling scenes have triggered global calls, including by the UN chief and Washington, for Southeast Asia to open its ports to boatpeople.
The US State Department said John Kerry had phoned his Thai counterpart “to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for them”.
“We urge governments in the region to refrain from push-backs of new boat arrivals,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said, calling for immediate action “to save the lives of migrants.”
The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.