Asian Nations Avoid Myanmar Criticism in Pledge to Help Migrants

Rohingya Migrants
Rohingya migrants sit and stand on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14. Photographer: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Southeast Asian nations agreed to cooperate more closely to stem an exodus of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh while avoiding a discussion of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims that has been blamed for sparking the crisis.

Countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand “fully recognized the urgency of the current situation which requires immediate regional responses,” Thailand’s foreign ministry said in a joint statement with officials from 17 nations who met in Bangkok Friday.

A crackdown on human trafficking rings by authorities in Thailand and Malaysia in recent months has left thousands of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh stranded at sea, risking a regional humanitarian crisis as governments debate how to address the issue. The influx has reached an “alarming level,” Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn said.

The United Nations and many governments have called for Myanmar’s leaders to do more to protect minorities after thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled the majority-Buddhist nation, where they are denied citizenship and have had their homes and businesses attacked in communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.

“The most recent humanitarian crisis is the human trafficking of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, resulting in thousands putting out to sea, suffering and dying, both from the terrible conditions and also through the ill treatment by their traffickers,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a security conference in the city state. “The solution requires a response at the source and not just at sea. It also requires countries to act decisively against the traffickers and put a stop to this organized racket.”

Escaping Violence

Myanmar is committed to alleviating the suffering of “boat people,” Htin Lynn, a special representative of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a speech at the Bangkok meeting, adding that “you can’t single out my country” as the root cause of the crisis.

Violence between Buddhists and Rohingya in Rakhine in 2012 killed about 180 people and displaced more than 100,000. Many of Myanmar’s 52 million people view the Rohingya as illegal migrants from what is now Bangladesh. Myanmar’s government excluded the Rohingya from a national census released Friday because it said they aren’t a recognized ethnic group.

There was no discussion on whether Myanmar should provide citizenship to the Rohingya, Norachit Sinhaseni, permanent secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a media briefing. Myanmar’s government had threatened not to attend the meeting if officials made reference to the Rohingya.

‘Dismayed and Disappointed’

“We are completely missing,” said Maung Kyaw Nu, a member of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand, who wasn’t allowed to attend the meeting. “Without Rohingya how can our voices be heard?”

A group of parliamentarians from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said they were “dismayed and disappointed” that representatives of Asean failed to publicly discuss the persecution of the Rohingya at Friday’s meeting.

“Myanmar’s policies are aimed at ‘cleansing’ the country of the Rohingya population, pure and simple: the government even admits to it itself,” Charles Santiago, chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a member of Malaysia’s parliament, said in a statement. “Can we really allow them to dictate that we can’t talk about it?”

Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to continue to provide temporary shelter to those stranded on overcrowded boats, and all affected countries pledged to strengthen law enforcement to combat people smuggling and provide the UN and the International Organization for Migration with access to migrants. The U.S. pledged an additional $3 million to assist the IOM and Australia said it will provide an additional A$5 million ($3.8 million) in humanitarian assistance.

‘Root Causes’

“The meeting essentially kicked the can down the road on the issues of root causes and the human rights abuses that are driving so many Rohingya out of Rakhine state,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview.

The U.S. Navy is conducting daily surveillance flights from Subang in Malaysia to locate boats carrying migrants, the U.S. State Department said in a statement Thursday. Thailand’s government on Friday agreed to allow the U.S. to operate flights from the country.

“We all are really hoping people who fled Burma can go home and live in a peaceful, stable, democratic Burma,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne C. Richard said after the meeting, referring to Myanmar by its former name.

The affected nations also agreed to address the root causes of the problem by providing economic incentives to create jobs, develop infrastructure and promote trade and a respect for human rights, according to the statement.

“If you expect one meeting to solve it I think you are expecting a miracle,” said Norachit from Thailand’s foreign ministry. “I don’t believe in miracles.”

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