Myanmar refuses to accept blame for migrant crisis

A protest in Dhaka demanding the safe return of migrant Bangladeshis who are floating on boats in the Andaman Sea. Picture: Shafiqul Alam/Demotix
A protest in Dhaka demanding the safe return of migrant Bangladeshis who are floating on boats in the Andaman Sea. Picture: Shafiqul Alam/Demotix
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MYANMAR has refused to shoulder the blame for an escalating humanitarian crisis and cast doubts on whether it will attend a meeting to be hosted by Thailand later this month aimed at easing an emergency that has left boatloads of refugees stranded at sea.

“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,” said Major Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar’s president. “We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”

Boats filled with more than 2,000 desperate and hungry refugees have arrived in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks, and thousands more migrants are believed to be adrift at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.

Many of those on the overcrowded vessels are ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Others are Bangladeshis fleeing poverty.

Both groups seem intent on reaching Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that has hosted more than 45,000 Rohingya over the years but now says it cannot accept any more. Indonesia and Thailand have voiced similar stances.

All three countries have their navies stationed in boats at maritime borders to push boats away or execute a so-called “help-on” policy of giving the boats food and water – and pointing them to other countries.

Myanmar appeared to direct some of the blame for the current crisis on its neighbours.

“From a humanitarian point of view, it’s sad that these people are being pushed out to sea by some countries,” said Zaw Htay, who heads the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein, who has not spoken publicly about the crisis since it escalated on 1 May.

Thailand has organised its 29 May regional meeting with officials from 15 countries to discuss the “root causes” of “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean.”

On Friday, Zaw Htay accused governments of trying to divert their human smuggling and slavery problems by dumping the blame on Myanmar.

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

Meanwhile migrants rescued from a sinking boat off Indonesia have said that about 100 people died after a fight broke out over the last remaining food. Survivors told of horrific conditions. Three men separately said people were stabbed, hanged or thrown overboard.

The 700 rescued migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh are being processed by the Indonesian authorities.

Early yesterday there were reported to be at least five people-smuggling boats, carrying up to 1,000 migrants, moored just off the northern coast of Myanmar.

Because Thailand and Malaysia are stopping the boats landing, the smugglers are now reluctant to make the journey but are refusing to release those on board unless ransoms are paid, reports claim.