Myanmar navy carries out first rescue of migrant boat

  • AFP, Sittwe, Myanmar
  • Updated: May 22, 2015 18:38 IST

Myanmar's navy Friday said it had carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat after mounting international pressure, as the UN warned the impending monsoon rains imperil thousands still stranded at sea.

"A navy ship found two boats... on May 21 while on patrol," Tin Maung Swe, a senior official in the western state of Rakhine told AFP, adding "about 200 Bengalis were on one of the boats".

"Bengalis" is a term often used pejoratively by Myanmar officials to describe the Muslim Rohingya minority, 1.3 million of whom live in the country but are not recognised as citizens.

The widespread persecution of the impoverished community in Rakhine state is one of the primary causes for the current regional exodus, alongside growing numbers trying to escape poverty in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The navy rescue was welcomed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which said it was helping local authorities provide assistance to the migrants.

But fears remain for many more still left 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, well in advance of the coming monsoon rains," UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan told AFP.

The imminent monsoon season, when heavy rains and cyclones lash the region, usually signal a significant drop off in regional boat migrant numbers.

But a recent crackdown on the people smuggling trade in Thailand led to scores of migrants being abandoned by gangmasters on stricken boats just as the weather is set to change.

In the Bay of Bengal, the UNHCR believes up to 2,000 migrants are still stuck on vessels controlled by people smugglers who have been unwilling to begin the journey south because of the crackdown.

A trickle of would-be migrants have recently returned to Myanmar after relatives raised funds to buy them back from smugglers. The boat discovered by Myanmar's navy was Thai-owned and was guided to shore in Maungdaw township before dawn on Friday -- the departure point for many Rohingya boats.

Photographs on the ministry of information's Facebook page showed scores of bare-chested men crammed into the hull of a wooden fishing vessel as it made land. The second vessel was empty, Tin Maung Swe said.

"Necessary medical healthcare and foods have been provided" to the passengers at a temporary camp in Maungdaw, he said.

"All of the 208 on board are from Bangladesh," he added, repeating Myanmar's official line that the migrants are from over the border.

US urges regional partnership

On Thursday the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia -- whose countries are destination points for Rohingya fleeing persecution -- met Myanmar officials as pressures mount to stem the migrant exodus from its shores.

Earlier this week, Malaysia and Indonesia relented on a hardline policy of pushing back the boats, and said their nations would accept the migrants for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

A US team led by deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken was also in Naypyidaw for talks with Myanmar's President Thein Sein.

In a Facebook post released late Thursday the US Embassy in Yangon said Blinken had "urged the Myanmar government to work with regional partners" in tackling the crisis.

The senior diplomat also "noted the contradictions inherent in the four race and religion bills to the government's efforts to protect human rights".

That was a reference to draft legislation that includes curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates, which are seen by activists as particularly discriminatory against women and minorities -- with the already marginalised Rohingya likely to be affected.

Myanmar has seen surging Buddhist nationalism in recent years and spates of violence targeting Muslim minorities have raised doubts over its much vaunted reforms after decades of harsh military rule.

Both the US and UN have raised particular concerns about the laws proposed by President Thein Sein, seen as a response to campaigns by hardline Buddhist monks in a key election year.

Noble Peace Prize winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is yet to comment on the current crisis, a silence that observers attribute to fears over alienating a swathe of the electorate just months ahead of the polls.

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