Malaysia orders search and rescue missions for refugees (The Straits Times)

Move comes as Myanmar holds talks with US and South-east Asian envoys

SITTWE (Myanmar) – Malaysia has ordered search and rescue missions for thousands of boat people stranded at sea, as Myanmar held talks with American and South-east Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores.

Yesterday’s rescue order, the first proactive official move to save persecuted Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshi economic migrants, came a day after Malaysia and Indonesia said they would stop turning away boats.

“We have to prevent loss of life,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on his Facebook account, announcing the order.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said his country had not made a similar order but the issue was “something that will be discussed”.

As the crisis unfolded, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand for days refused to take in boats overloaded with exhausted migrants fleeing poverty or persecution.

But on Wednesday, after talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Indonesia relented, announcing that they would accept boat people for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

The policy about-turn was welcomed by the United States, which said it also stood ready to admit some of the migrants.

Thailand, which also took part in the KL talks, said it would no longer push back boats in its waters but stopped short of signing up fully to the deal.

Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o- cha yesterday said those who felt the Thai government should do more to help should “swop places” with the boat people.

“Anyone who supports this idea (of accepting boat people), please contribute 1 baht (4 Singapore cents) a day or take them to your home when their case has been processed,” the former army chief said in Parliament. “Or you migrate out to the sea and bring them to live here instead.”

Comparing food allowances, he said: “Thai soldiers get a food allowance of 20 baht a day, but these (detained migrants) get more than 70 baht.”

He also said there were “a lot of problems” caused by the migrants’ needs, such as them having to slaughter their own meat – a reference to halal food.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Myanmar President Thein Sein and they held discussions on the boat people and bilateral issues, Xinhua news agency reported without providing details. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi were also set to meet Myanmar officials.

Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group and insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “We do not accept that term (Rohingya),” said presidential office director Zaw Htay ahead of the talks.

But he confirmed that Myanmar would attend a planned broader regional summit on the crisis in Bangkok next Friday, after the government softened its line this week by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.

Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coastlines of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human trafficking led some smugglers to abandon their human cargo at sea with scant food or water.

Malaysian intelligence estimated that there are 7,000 people still adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.


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