Myanmar May Stay Away From Human-Smuggling Summit

By Nurdin Hasan
150515_BOATS_ACEH_620.jpg A Rohingya Muslim woman from Myanmar weeps as she calls her husband in Malaysia after being rescued from a migrant boat in Aceh, Indonesia, May 15, 2015.

Updated at 7:00 p.m. ET on 2015-05-15

Myanmar said Friday it might not attend a summit on human smuggling in Thailand later this month, as Indonesian fishermen plucked hundreds more migrants from the Strait of Malacca.

Almost 2,500 desperate migrants have come ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week and many have told their rescuers they are Bangladeshis or Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, but a top official in Naypyitaw insisted this had not been confirmed.

“We have been saying all the time that there is no Rohingya in Myanmar. So, we will not attend this meeting if they invited us with the title of Rohingya,” Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, said in an interview.

“They possibly could be from Bangladesh, where the population exploded. Human trafficking gangs and some government officials are involved in that problem. If they accuse [that] these people are from Myanmar to cover these involvements, we won’t accept it.”

Thailand on Tuesday announced it was hosting a summit on May 29 to address an “unprecedented increase of irregular migration across the Bay of Bengal.”

Senior officials from 15 countries would attend, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at the time.

In Bangkok on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha repeated calls for a regional approach to tackle the crisis.

“We need to solve the problem at the upstream and downstream levels,” the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying.

A crackdown on trafficking by Thailand earlier this month has torn the lid of secrecy from migrant smuggling, exposing the extent of the problem and triggering a humanitarian crisis.

Myanmar is the root cause of the flow of migrants to Southeast Asia, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement Friday.
“Until the Myanmar government addresses the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, this precarious migration will continue,” Zeid said.

‘We let them go’

In comments to reporters Thursday, Prayuth openly acknowledged Thailand’s complicity as a transit country for migrant smuggling in the past.

“When they came into Thai territorial water and went to where they wanted to, we let them go, but with safety, we have done that all along.”

The kingdom launched a crackdown on the illegal trade earlier this month following the discovery of dozens of migrant graves in smuggling camps on the Thai-Malaysia border.

Malaysia and Indonesia, overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of migrants this week, have been turning away vessels, leading to a growing chorus of condemnation of the policy as inhumane and anti-Muslim.

Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia’s envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and a former foreign minister, urged Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to take care of the refugees “and not let them drift away at sea.”

He urged the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) to engage with Myanmar over the issue.

“We know that the source of the problem is Myanmar but at the moment, there’s no better way than for ASEAN to sit down together and engage with the Myanmar government.”

Opposition lawmaker Charles Santiago was more blunt, saying Malaysia’s chairmanship of the bloc would be a failure if it did not resolve the crisis.

“Malaysia is the chair of ASEAN and it was also instrumental in bringing Myanmar into the10-member bloc,” he said.

“We need Najib, as the head of state, to reprimand Myanmar and hold its quasi-civilian government accountable for the targeted persecution and killings of the Rohingya,” The Malaysian Insider quoted Santiago as saying.

Floating in the sea

Early Friday, fishermen from Aceh, Indonesia plucked 731 more migrants from the Strait of Malacca, bringing the total number of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis rescued this week to 1,315.

Members of one group told BenarNews they had set sail from Bangladesh two months ago, and were towed back out to sea by both the Indonesian and the Malaysian navy in recent days.

Marzuki Ramli, 45, was setting up nets late Thursday when he heard from another fisherman about people floating in the water far off the coast.

“They told us a lot of people were floating in the sea about five miles away,” he told BenarNews in Kuala Langsa, East Aceh on Friday.

He and other fishermen took a 26- by 6-meter boat in the direction indicated. An hour later, they saw a terrible sight about 64km (40 miles) from the coast.

“People were screaming for help. We pulled them from the sea into our boat,” he said.

He called for backup because of the large number of people in the water and in a nearby wooden boat.

“Two hours later, we were finally done pulling in those people,” Marzuki said.

The migrants were exceedingly weak, he said. Many were injured and appeared to have been stabbed.

Preliminary data counted 74 women and 63 children, including 30 babies among the migrants rescued Friday.

Muhammad Amin, a Rohingya man, said that before the fishermen arrived fighting broke out between Rohingya and Bangladeshis on the boat over scarce food supplies.

Many people jumped or were thrown into the sea during the fighting.

“If the Acehnese fishermen hadn’t come to help us, we would probably all be dead,” said Muhammad Koyes, a 19-year-old man from Bangladesh. “We swam –we don’t know in what direction – for about six hours before the fishermen pulled us out.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Zaw Htay was in Yangon.


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