SITTWE, Myanmar: Myanmar was braced on Thursday for its first talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores, as Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea.
Foreign ministers Anifah Aman of Malaysia and Retno Marsudi of Indonesia were to visit Naypyidaw a day after announcing their countries would end a much-condemned policy of turning away boatloads of starving migrants.
The policy about-turn was welcomed by the United States, whose Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also to meet with Myanmar officials in the capital Naypyidaw, as his country said it stood ready to admit some of the migrants.
Blinken said he would raise the Myanmar government’s treatment of its Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which is widely blamed for fuelling the crisis.
“We will be talking directly to the government of Myanmar about its own responsibilities to improve conditions in Rakhine state so that people don’t feel that their only choice is to put their lives at risk by leaving and taking to the sea,” Blinken said during a stop on Wednesday in Jakarta.
But tensions with the former junta-run nation remained, and heading into Thursday’s talks, Myanmar’s government reiterated its refusal to recognize the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group.
It insists they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
“If they are going to discuss about Rohingya, as we have said before, we do not accept that term here,” said Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office.
But he confirmed Myanmar would attend a broader regional summit planned on the crisis in Bangkok on May 29, after the government this week softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.
The talks come as Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday ordered the navy to carry out search and rescue missions — the first proactive official move aimed at saving the migrants.
“We have to prevent loss of life,” Najib said on his Facebook account, announcing the measure.
The Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands annually, an outflow that has surged in recent years following sectarian violence pitting them against Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
A major humanitarian crisis had loomed as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refused to take in boats overloaded with exhausted and dying Rohingya, as well as economic migrants from Bangladesh.
But Malaysia and Indonesia relented, with Anifah and Marsudi announcing after talks in Malaysia’s capital that their nations would accept and care for boatpeople for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.
Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn also took part in Wednesday’s talks but Thailand did not sign on fully to the offer.
However, its foreign ministry later said it would no longer “push back migrants stranded in Thai waters.”
News of the diplomatic breakthrough was on Thursday yet to trickle down to the displaced Rohingya lodged in ramshackle camps around the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe.