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Burma and Bangladesh agreed to address the “root causes” of a migrant exodus from their shores at talks in Bangkok on Friday, but critics pilloried a deal that failed to mention the Rohingya minority at the heart of the crisis.
Southeast Asia’s migrant scandal began to unfurl at the start of this month after a Thai crackdown on people smuggling threw the multi-million-dollar industry into disarray.
It led gangmasters to abandon their victims on land and at sea, and images of stick-thin, dazed migrants trapped on boats or stumbling onto shores and out of forests shocked the world, heaping pressure on Southeast Asian nations to act.
The majority of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims, who are pariahs in Burma’s Buddhist-majority western Arakan [Rakhine] State, and people fleeing poverty from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Thai hosts described the day-long talks as “very constructive”, saying all 17 countries at the meeting agreed on a statement to provide humanitarian help to 2,500 migrants believed to still be adrift at sea, as well as to the 3,500 who have already made it to Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian shores since 1 May.
The statement also drew a commitment to address the “root causes” and “factors in areas of [migrants’] origin”, including improving the economy, human rights and security in the source countries.
But the document did not mention the Rohingya — who Naypyidaw refuses to recognise as an official minority.
Burma, officially known as Myanmar, denies citizenship to the majority of its 1.3 million Rohingya, and calls them “Bengalis” — shorthand for foreigners from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The publication on Friday of Burma’s first census in three decades also failed to include the Rohingya in its tally, after authorities refused to count them if they identified themselves as part of that ethnic group.
In a timely development just as the Bangkok meeting wrapped up, Burma’s Ministry of Information said it had rescued 727 “Bengalis” adrift in its waters on Friday morning.
Bangladesh recognises some 30,000 Rohingya as refugees, but tens of thousands more are treated as illegal migrants from Burma.
Welcoming the outcome of the meeting, Shahidul Haque, head of the Bangladeshi delegation, told reporters “we had a very productive discussion today”.
– ‘Band aid on a gaping wound’-
Others were less impressed with Friday’s talks.
Charles Santiago, chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a Malaysian lawmaker, described the meeting as “lots of talk with little genuine substance or resolve to take any action whatsoever”.
His group pilloried the meeting for failing to “publically discuss the persecution of the Rohingya”.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia called the talks “a band aid on a gaping wound”.
“The Rohingya are not even named in the statement … how can you talk about a people if you don’t name them?”
Bangkok began its belated crackdown on the smuggling trade in the country’s deep south on 1 May, after dozens of bodies were pulled from mass graves in a remote border area studded by migrant camps.
On the Malaysian side of the same frontier, authorities have found 139 suspected migrants’ graves, raising fears that both officials and residents had turned a blind eye to the lucrative business.
Countries attending the talks include those directly affected by the current crisis such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — all of whom vacillated for days before bowing to international pressure to offer humanitarian aid to migrants trapped at sea.
All three nations say they now are actively searching for any remaining boats adrift in their waters.
Burma’s Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, and a surge of violence in 2012 between the community and the Buddhist majority in Arakan State brought their plight to the fore.
They face restrictions on movement, jobs and family size, while their pariah status means they are unrepresented — even Burma’s democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi chooses not to exert her moral authority on their behalf.
The former junta-led quasi-civilian government has balked at any criticism of its treatment of the community and has previously threatened to pull out of the talks altogether if the word Rohingya is used.
Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to New Delhi Syed Muazzem Ali reiterated to reporters in the Indian capital Friday that the Rohingya were the responsibility of the Burmese government and there was no room for them in Bangladesh.
“It’s the Myanmar government that must take their citizens back,” he said.