KUALA LUMPUR/KOH LIPE, Thailand (Reuters) - Malaysia prodded Myanmar on Sunday to halt the exodus from its shores as concern grew for uncounted migrants adrift in rickety boats around the Andaman Sea.
The United Nations has called on Southeast Asian nations not to push back the boatloads of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis - men, women and children who fled persecution and poverty at home, and now face sickness and starvation at sea.
Malaysia, which says it has already taken in 120,000 illegal migrants from Myanmar, has made it clear that it wants no more and its deputy prime minister said on Sunday that Myanmar must now take responsibility.
“What is the responsibility of the Myanmar government ... is there any humanitarian aspect for them to solve this matter internally?” Muhyiddin Yassin told a news conference, adding that the burden should not fall on other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters that Malaysia, as current chair of ASEAN, was hoping to discuss the crisis with Myanmar “before it is brought to the international level”.
An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded smugglers’ boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period of 2014, the UNHCR has said.
A clampdown by Thailand’s military junta has made a well-trodden trafficking route into Malaysia - one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest economies - too risky for criminals who prey on Rohingya fleeing oppression in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and on Bangladeshis looking for better livelihoods abroad.
The United Nations said last week that the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ended discrimination.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Myanmar terms the Rohingya “Bengalis”, a name most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.
Thailand has said it will host talks in Bangkok on May 29 for 15 countries to discuss the emergency.
However, there has been no sign yet of a coordinated response from regional governments over what to do with some 2,500 migrants who have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia over the past week or some 5,000 others still stranded at sea.
“The need for effective regional action to combat the crisis is clear, yet our leaders have consistently failed to act,” said Charles Santiago, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a member of parliament in Malaysia.
“They hide behind the arcane and ultimately destructive policy of non-interference, repeating the demonstrably false claim that the Myanmar government’s persecution of Rohingya is an ‘internal affair’,” he wrote in the Jakarta Post on Sunday.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have all turned or towed overcrowded migrant boats away from their shores in recent days, in what the International Organization for Migration has described as “maritime ping-pong with human lives”.
For several days, about 300 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants on one particular boat have zig-zagged across maritime borders just out of sight of gleaming Thai beach resorts.
Reuters journalists on a speedboat off the coast near the border between Malaysia and Thailand saw hundreds of rake-thin migrants huddling on the sun-beaten deck of the boat, which was towed back out to sea twice by the Thai navy and intercepted by the Malaysians.
Bangkok said in a statement released on Sunday that the people on the boat did not want to land in Thailand, that it would not push boats back and would set up temporary shelters for migrants that do land.
The United States last year downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to its list of the world’s worst centers of human trafficking, dumping them in the same category as North Korea and Syria.
As for Myanmar, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a routine note to Congress last week that Washington - while not curtailing engagement with Myanmar after decades of military rule - would maintain some sanctions on the country.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said that Washington continued to raise its concerns with Myanmar over the migrants “because of dire humanitarian and economic situations they face at home out of fear of ethnic and religious violence.”
There was no immediate response from Myanmar to Malaysia’s calls for it to take responsibility. On Saturday, a senior official from the president’s office said Myanmar had not received an invitation for the Bangkok meeting and would not take part anyway if the word ‘Rohingya’ was used.
Writing by Simon Webb and John Chalmers; Editing by Rosalind Russell