LANGSA, Indonesia: Malaysia’s prime minister said on Saturday he would seek help from Myanmar to address the unfolding “humanitarian catastrophe” involving a wave of boatpeople flooding to Southeast Asia, thousands of whom are ethnic Rohingya fleeing oppression in the mainly Buddhist country.
Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have come under increasing pressure to rescue a wave of starving and helpless Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants after triggering outrage by turning them back out to sea with scarce food and nowhere to go.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said “we are liasing with the Myanmar government to get their response,” according to Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency.
“I hope they will give a positive response as the refugees were due to internal problems that we cannot interfere with, but we want to do something before it gets worse,” he said.
Myanmar’s cooperation is deemed vital to solving Southeast Asia’s biggest influx of boatpeople since the end of the Vietnam War.
But its government — which considers the Muslim Rohingya minority to be foreign interlopers — has already rejected a Thai call for a regional summit on the issue on May 29, saying it was not their problem.
The UN refugee agency has reported a surge in departures from Bay of Bengal ports in recent months.
Activists say 8,000 people may be adrift on horribly overcrowded vessels, with starvation and disease claiming lives, after a Thai crackdown crimped busy human-trafficking routes and spurred smugglers to abandon men, women and children at sea.
In one of the most grim episodes yet, survivors of a boat that sank off the east coast of Sumatra island — among roughly 900 people rescued off Indonesia on Friday — described a bloody struggle for survival between Bangladeshis and Rohingya on board.
“They were killing each other, throwing people overboard,” said Sunarya, police chief of the city of Langsa near where they were rescued.
The jam-packed boat had put to sea two months ago but was deserted this week by captain and crew, survivors said.
It was then turned away, first by Indonesia and then Malaysia, as the Rohingya won an onboard fight for the remaining food, said Bangladeshi survivor Muhammad Koyes.
“When we asked for food, they beat us. The Bangladeshis were very weak, so we could not fight back,” he said.
More fighting broke out as the boat slowly sank, said Muhammad Amin, a Rohingya who was among those thrown overboard. He drifted six hours before being rescued.
Indonesian fishermen who pulled survivors aboard their boats said some bore stab wounds and other injuries.
“Thank God we survived, I have a wife and children in Malaysia,” Muhammad Amin said.
Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Sumatra’s Aceh province after managing to get ashore in recent days, while more than 1,100 had reached Malaysia.
About 100 made it to a southern Thai island, a local official said on Friday.
Najib said he told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the situation was “a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The appalling scenes have triggered global calls, including by the UN chief and Washington, for Southeast Asia to open its ports to boatpeople.
The US State Department said John Kerry had phoned his Thai counterpart “to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for them”.
“We urge governments in the region to refrain from push-backs of new boat arrivals,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said, calling for immediate action “to save the lives of migrants.”
The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.
But Rohingya have fled western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the thousands — bound largely for Malaysia — in recent years to escape sectarian violence and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Each spring, boats stream out of the Bay of Bengal for Southeast Asia, trying to beat seasonal monsoon storms. Hundreds die every year, according to the UN refugee agency.
The flow has surged recently as traffickers dupe migrants by waiving payment for passage, said Hla Myint, a Rohingya leader in a refugee camp near Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe.
Instead, they later demand ransoms from migrants’ families once at sea, or ashore in Thailand or Malaysia. The trend has contributed to boats being kept at sea for weeks.
Despite the rising outrage, there has yet been no indication regional authorities were ready to welcome migrant boats and assess any refugee claims.
“(Boatpeople) will not be allowed to enter our region. If they do, they may create social problems,” General Moeldoko, head of Indonesia’s military, was quoted saying by state-run media.