US presses Burma on migrants crisis
Navy ships from Indonesia and Malaysia are scouring south-east Asian waters for boats believed to be carrying thousands of migrants, as a senior US diplomat said Burma needs to shoulder some responsibility for the crisis.
Deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken said Rohingya Muslims fleeing the predominantly Buddhist nation are risking perilous journeys and putting their lives in the hands of human traffickers because "they are in despair and don't see a future" at home.
They have been denied citizenship and chased off their own land, and have little access to education or adequate medical care and cannot move around freely.
"The root of the problem for those leaving Myanmar (Burma) is the political and social situation on the ground," Mr Blinken told reporters at a news conference in Yangon wrapping up a tour of south-east Asia.
"Even as we tackle the immediate humanitarian emergency - that is literally to save and rescue people, bring them back to land, get them the care that they need and treat them appropriately - we also have to get at the underlying conditions."
He said he made that point when he met president Thein Sein, the army commander-in-chief and other senior officials.
South-east Asia is grappling with a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.
Fearing arrest after a crackdown on human trafficking networks in the region, captains earlier this month started abandoning boats packed with Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution and Bangladeshis escaping poverty.
More than 3,600 migrants have washed ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand since May 10, and thousands more are believed to be trapped at sea. The United Nations has warned that time is running out to save them.
Governments have been reluctant to help, worried that accepting even a few refugees would open the floodgates for more. In recent days, several navies pushed back boats packed with desperate and starving men, women and children.
The first breakthrough came on Wednesday, when Indonesia and Malaysia said they were willing to shelter new arrivals as long as the international community promised to help resettle them to third countries within a year.
In the first official rescue operation, four Malaysian navy ships are searching for boats, said navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar. He said three helicopters and three other ships are on standby.
Burma's navy found two fishing trawlers filled with 208 men during a patrol off Rakhine state, the main point of departure for fleeing Rohingya.
Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office, said the men were identified as Bangladeshi and would be sent to the neighbouring country.
Rohingya, numbering around 1.3 million, have been identified by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
After Burma moved from dictatorship towards democracy in 2011, newfound freedoms of expression gave voice to Buddhist extremists who spewed hatred against the religious minority and said Muslims were taking over the country.
Attacks left up to 280 people dead, and another 140,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes and are now living under apartheid-like conditions in crowded displacement camps.
The government refuses to recognise them, regarding them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations.
It has expressed scepticism that those fleeing are actually from Burma and insists it is not to blame for the crisis.
After initially saying it might boycott a meeting next week in Thailand to address the problem, it agreed yesterday to attend, saying the invitation letter did not use the term Rohingya and did not say that Burma was solely to blame.
Those were the conditions the government had set.
"We are ready to co-operate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds," Zaw Htay said.
The United States, which initially insisted it was a regional problem, has in recent days also become involved.
It is preparing to send "maritime aviation patrols throughout the region", Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool said, adding that the Department of Defence "is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously".
Washington has been urging governments in the region to co-operate on search and rescue operations and sheltering the migrants.