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'Finger Pointing Will Take Us Nowhere': Myanmar Denies Responsibility for Migrant Crisis

The root causes of the migrant crisis could remain unaddressed with Myanmar blocking discussion of the status of the Rohingya ethnic minority at the summit.

by Scott Mitchell
May 29 2015, 2:45pm

Photo by YONGYOT PRUKSARAK/EPA

As Myanmar urges the world not to point fingers in its direction for the current migrant crisis in Southeast Asia, a summit in Bangkok on Friday brought together representatives from the United States and the United Nations with regional nations to try to solve the humanitarian crisis unfolding off their coastlines.

While an unknown number have died aboard the small fishing vessels, about 3,500 migrants have arrived in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia since a crackdown began against human trafficking in Thailand at the beginning of the month, which saw many asylum seekers take to the water. Rohingya people from Myanmar and Bangladeshis are the largest groups aboard the small boats making the treacherous journey through the region. Over 3000 migrants could be adrift as sea, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and fears are escalating for their safety if medical care and supplies don't reach them soon.

The Rohingya are believed to be the largest single ethnic group among the asylum seekers. They are essentially stateless, because the government of Myanmar refuses to recognize them with citizenship or basic paperwork.

"Finger pointing won't serve any purpose; it will take us nowhere," Htin Linn, the acting director of Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Ministry, told delegates at Friday's conference. "This is an issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country."

Related: Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis Could Currently Be Adrift at Sea

The outburst came after United Nations Assistant High Commissioner on Refugees Volker Turk said that the root cause of the crisis had to be addressed. "This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people," he said, adding that Myanmar, formerly Burma, has to recognize all of the inhabitants of the country as citizens, because they "urgently required access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms."

Myanmar threatened to boycott the summit if it "related with the Rohingya issue," Zaw Htay, a director in the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein, said last week. The nation's attempt to force the plight of the Rohingya people off the agenda meant many delegates had to talk around the issue. In total, 17 countries in the region, as well as the United States and Japan, attended the conference along with humanitarian organizations and the UN.

Thailand's Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn seemed to concur with the UN position, when in his opening remarks he said, "The root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed." Patimapragorn added that the "influx of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an alarming level."

The Rohingya who have come ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days have spoken of traumatic experiences aboard the boats.

"We spent two months on that boat, more people kept coming to the big boat, small boats all the time," one Rohingya girl told Human Rights Watch (HRW). "We [the women] were under the boat, it was so small. I couldn't see outside the boat, just feel it go up and down. People were throwing up, I felt dizzy and uncomfortable the whole time."

Others accused smugglers of forcing them to make the hazardous trip. HRW quoted one 13-year-old Rohingya girl as saying, "they dragged me to the boat, they had sticks, and threatened to beat me. I screamed, I cried loudly. My parents were weeping, but they couldn't do anything."

Malaysia and Indonesia agreed on May 20 to accept the asylum seekers temporarily, having originally denied them from coming ashore, on the condition that the international community settles them elsewhere within a year.

Speaking to Reuters, Tanasak confirmed Thailand has received a request from the US to allow its aircraft to fly out of Thai territory in an effort to spot boats of asylum seeker from the air. US Navy flights have been operating out of Subang, Malaysia on a daily basis.

"Yes, we are permitting it, it is starting today," Tanasak said.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell

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