Malaysia launches talks amid Asia’s migrant crisis deepens

Malaysia launched a series of high-level talks with its neighbors on Sunday, seeking a solution to a deepening crisis in which boatloads of refugees are stranded off Southeast Asia’s shores, with no country willing to take them in.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman met with his counterpart from Bangladesh, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, ahead of meetings scheduled with the Indonesian and Thai foreign ministers in the coming days, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Boatloads of more than 2,000 members of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim community fleeing persecution and migrants from Bangladesh trying to escape poverty have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in recent weeks. But thousands more are stranded at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their human cargo.

Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been criticized for long ignoring the plight of the Rohingya.

On Friday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed to take action as urgent calls to address the growing humanitarian crisis poured in from the United Nations, the United States and others.

“This is an issue of international and regional importance,” Najib said. “We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis.”

ASEAN adheres to a strict policy of non-interference, which in the past has blocked public criticism of Myanmar and critics say enables member states to commit abuses without consequences.

Most persecuted groups

The UN has called the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted groups. For decades, they have faced state-sanctioned discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. In the past three years, Rohingya have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists that left hundreds dead and sparked an exodus of boat people fleeing on rickety, overcrowded vessels operated by human trafficking syndicates.

Most are trying to reach Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that has hosted more than 45,000 Rohingya over the years but now says it can’t accept any more. Indonesia and Thailand have voiced similar stances — fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

The Malaysian and Bangladeshi foreign ministers met in Sabah state on Borneo island Sunday as part of a pre-planned annual consultation between the two countries, the official said.

Malaysia’s Anifah is also expected to meet with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Monday and hold talks with his Thai counterpart, Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn, in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, the official said.

Efforts were being made to meet with representatives from Myanmar, he said, without elaborating.

Myanmar’s cooperation is seen as vital to solving the crisis, but its government has already cast doubt on whether it will attend a conference to be hosted by Thailand on May 29 that is to include 15 Asian nations affected by the emergency.

“We are not ignoring the migrant problem, but our leaders will decide whether to attend the meeting based on what is going to be discussed,” Maj. Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar’s president, said Saturday. “We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”

He put some of the blame on Myanmar’s neighbors, saying that from a humanitarian point of view, “it’s sad that these people are being pushed out to sea by some countries.”

An increasingly alarmed United Nations warned Friday against “floating coffins” and called on regional leaders to put human lives first. The United States urged governments not to push back new boat arrivals.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman