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In Reversal, Myanmar Agrees to Attend Meeting on Migrant Crisis

Rohingya migrants from Myanmar at a temporary compound in Aceh Province, Indonesia, on Thursday. Credit: Beawiharta/Reuters

By Joe Cochrane
May 22, 2015

JAKARTA, Indonesia — After a flurry of diplomatic activity, the government of Myanmar said on Thursday that it would send representatives to a regional meeting in Bangkok next week aimed at resolving the continuing humanitarian crisis of migrants stranded at sea in Southeast Asia and addressing the larger issue of human trafficking.

Myanmar, which has previously refused to attend any conference that specifically mentions the plight of ethnic Rohingya migrants fleeing the western part of the country, softened its stance after officials held separate talks on Thursday with the visiting foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia.

In addition, Antony J. Blinken, the United States deputy secretary of state, discussed the migrant crisis in a meeting on Thursday with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, said U Zaw Htay, deputy director general of the president’s office.

On Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia announced that they would temporarily shelter an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh languishing aboard rickety wooden boats in the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca, until they are either resettled in a third country or repatriated within a year.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya, members of a Muslim ethnic group who live primarily in Rakhine State in Myanmar, have fled ethnic violence and persecution there during the last several years, with most going to Malaysia or Bangladesh.

The government in Myanmar, formerly Burma, does not recognize the one million Rohingya inside its borders as citizens, referring to them as “Bengalis,” and implying they are from neighboring Bangladesh, and refusing to accept any migrants back.

Thailand, which will host the May 29 meeting, agreed to help address the migrant crisis, which is well into its second week, after talks with Malaysia and Indonesia on Wednesday, but it did not pledge to take in any more migrants.

Mr. Htay, of the president’s office, said that Myanmar had agreed to attend the Bangkok meeting only after being assured that the term “Rohingya” would not be used.

“The term ‘irregular migrant’ will be used instead,” he said. “They can’t pressure us. We won’t accept any pressure. We need the right approach to resolve the problem.”

Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Myanmar had also confirmed its willingness to supportregional efforts to resolve the migrant issue, including tightening its borders “so there’s no outflux of migrants.”

Mr. Nasir also said that Myanmar would send officials to the Indonesian island of Sumatra to verify the identities of Rohingya currently being cared for in four migrant camps there.

U Yan Myo Thein, a Burmese political commentator, said the country’s pledge to attend the meeting next week was particularly significant given that in the past, its military government refused to cooperate with its neighbors on the Rohingya migrant issue, most notably at a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand in 2009 during a separate migrant crisis.

“It is time Myanmar accepts this problem,” he said. “They can’t reject cooperation with the international community.”

The United States has offered to help finance international humanitarian aid efforts already underway for an estimated 3,500 migrants who have reached Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, as well as those still out at sea. Washington has indicated that it would be willing to permanently take in some of the Rohingya migrants, in addition to helping others resettle in a third country.

There was also a report in The Dhaka Tribune, in the Bangladeshi capital, that the small West African nation of Gambia, which is predominantly Muslim, has offered to take in all the Rohingya migrants, with international assistance.

While the Rohingya at the center of the current migrant crisis are likely to receive official United Nations refugee status, the Bangladeshis are considered economic migrants and will be repatriated, according to officials from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Organization for Migration.

After two consecutive days of ships packed with migrants landing or being rescued off the coast of Sumatra, no boats were reported to have landed or been rescued at sea in Southeast Asia as of Thursday night. However, The Associated Press reported that Malaysia had said that four of its navy ships were actively searching for stranded vessels.

Migrants who landed in Indonesia in recent days have told stories of horror and ill treatment at the hands of their smugglers, who abandoned many of them on the high seas to evade a crackdown on smuggling networks by Thailand. Some have described passengers dying of starvation and their bodies being thrown overboard.

Joe Lowry, a spokesman in Bangkok for the International Organization for Migration, said aid agencies were increasingly worried about the health of the several thousand migrants still on boats given the condition of those who arrived ashore in Indonesia — including women and children — on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“They were beyond the point of suffering,” he said of the arrivals. “They are suffering from exhaustion, lack of food, dehydration, psychological devastation, diarrheal diseases, and are badly malnourished.”

Mr. Lowry said he estimated that 40 percent of migrants still at sea were suffering from malnutrition, considering that some had been held on boats by smugglers for up to four months or longer with little food and water.

First Adm. Amarulla Octavian, chief of staff of the Indonesian Navy’s Western Fleet command, said on Thursday that its vessels were patrolling in and around the Strait of Malacca and would help any migrant boats they found in distress, in coordination with the Malaysian and Thai navies, if needed.

Before Wednesday, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand’s navies had pushed back migrant boats from their territorial waters.

Admiral Octavian said that Indonesia and Malaysia now had to determine how many migrants each would take in, and suggested that they each accept an equal share.

“There must be crucial talks to have a balance between the two countries, based on our territory and responsibilities,” he said.

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.

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