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No 'miracle' solution at Asian migrant crisis meeting

Representatives pose for a group photo at the "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" regarding the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, May 29, 2015. In the past month, more than 3,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and impoverished Bangladeshis hoping to find jobs have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, drawing international attention to a crisis in Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

By Malcomlm J. Foster & Jocelyn Gecker
May 29, 2015

BANGKOK — Thailand hosted a meeting of 17 countries Friday to address an alarming rise in the number of boat people in Southeast Asian waters.

The talks were delicate because Myanmar — the country thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled amid state-sanctioned discrimination and violence — bristles at any suggestion that it's largely to blame for the crisis. Delegates faced a tricky balancing act of coming up with steps to tackle a complex issue while making sure Myanmar didn't boycott the talks.

Here's a look at what the meeting achieved, failed to achieve, and what the likely next steps are.


— Countries in the region talked. It was the first time in years, if ever, that they have openly discussed the Rohingya crisis — a highly sensitive topic for Myanmar, which has blocked the topic from regional discussion on numerous occasions. "The first result is that it took place at all, with a very comprehensive representation of all the countries — including Myanmar," said International Organization of Migration Director-General William Lacy Swing.

— Donors pledged money. The United States announced $3 million in funds in response to an appeal by the IOM for $26 million. The money will help pay for temporary shelter, food and other urgent needs for thousands of migrants. Australia also pledged $4.6 million for humanitarian assistance in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where an estimated 1 million Rohingya live in dire conditions.

— The U.S. can fly. After a week of delays, Thailand agreed to allow the U.S. military to operate flights out of Thailand to search for migrants believed to be still stuck on boats, after more than 3,000 came ashore this month in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. It is unclear why Thailand waited so long to accept the offer. So far, U.S. Navy flights have been operating out of Subang, Malaysia, but could not fly over Thai airspace. The U.S. State Department says it expects the flights to start in the next few days.


— Solve the crisis. "With the situation being what it is, if you expect one meeting to resolve it, you're expecting a miracle," Top Thai Foreign Ministry official Norachit Sinhaseni said at a closing news briefing.

— Enforce a binding agreement. The 17 countries came up with 17 "proposals and recommendations" including ambitious steps to improve life in the places people are fleeing. They included "promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services, such as housing, education and health care." Did Myanmar agree to this overhaul? Norachit's reply: "That is the aspiration."

— Discuss the big issues. The Rohingya Muslims risk their lives to flee Buddhist-majority Myanmar because they are persecuted at home. They are denied basic rights including citizenship, are targeted by extremist Buddhist mobs, and are victims of state-sanctioned discrimination. These issues were not discussed, Norachit said. Asked if the fundamental question of citizenship for Rohingya came up, he had a one-word answer: "No."

— State the R-Word. The term "Rohingya" doesn't appear in their joint statement and, according to Norachit, was barely uttered during the meeting. This was in deference to Myanmar's distaste for the word. Myanmar had threatened to boycott the talks if the word appeared on the formal invitation. It does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group, insisting on calling them "Bengalis," arguing they are really Bangladeshis. Bangladesh also does not recognize them as citizens.


— More talks. The meeting was hailed as a good first step, and the countries agreed to hold more talks. Members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to bring the issue to the group's ministerial meeting on transnational crime. But no date was set for the next round.

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