More than 200 migrants found in boat offshore Thailand coast
Myanmar's navy found two boats, one carrying more than 200 Bangladeshis, after the military chief said some migrants landing in Malaysia and Indonesia this month are pretending to be Rohingya Muslims so they can get U.N. aid.
The military chief's remarks are sure to spark concern after the United States this week stressed the need for Myanmar to address what it saw as the root cause of the migration, which included "racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence" against the ethnic minority Rohingya.
Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine in 2012.
U.N. agencies have urged regional governments to protect thousands of migrants stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman sea with dwindling supplies.
The two boats, one carrying migrants and the other empty, came from Ranong, in southern Thailand, the Rakhine state government said in a press release. The people smugglers' original plan had been to load the boats with 300 migrants each and take them to Thailand, it said.
"While on patrol in Myanmar waters, the Myanmar Navy ship 568 found a boat loaded with about 200 Bengali and another empty boat at sea about four miles west of Thinbaw Gway Village, Maungdaw Township," Myanmar government spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page, using the government's term for illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Altogether, 219 people were on the boat, said Ye Htut, including nine crew members and "two Bengali interpreters".
The migrants were "from Cox's Bazar, Chittagong and northern Dhaka," referring to cities and towns in Bangladesh, he said.
Hundreds of migrants, including Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis fleeing persecution and poverty at home, have been pushed back out to sea by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia this month. Many now face sickness and possible starvation.
Senior Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing "hinted that most victims are expected to assume themselves to be Rohingya from Myanmar in the hope of receiving assistance from UNHCR" during a meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.
"He stressed the need to investigate their country of origin rather than to accuse a country," the newspaper reported.
Scores of Rohingya are paying off people smugglers and returning to the squalid camps they used to live in after being held for months on overcrowded ships.
The Rohingya have long complained of state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar and are denied citizenship. Myanmar denies discriminating against the group and has said it is not the source of the problem.
The UNHCR refugee agency on Friday said it welcomed the disembarkation of "more than 200 people", adding that it hoped more would follow.
"It is estimated that up to 2,000 people are still stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal. We hope that this recent positive development will be followed by other disembarkations in Myanmar and across the region. This needs to happen before the coming monsoon rains."
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday pledged assistance and ordered the navy to rescue thousands adrift at sea, and a Thai official said Myanmar had agreed to attend an emergency conference on the crisis.
Malaysia and Indonesia have also said they would let as many as 7,000 migrants on the seas now to come ashore temporarily, but no more.
Both countries have also said that temporary shelters would be set up to house the migrants but Thailand, a traditional transit point for those trying to reach Malaysia for work, said it would not follow suit.