Finger-pointing, rebukes bog down migrant-crisis meet

Finger-pointing, rebukes bog down migrant-crisis meet

Low rank of many participants casts doubt agreement will be struck

International Organization for Migration director-general William Lacy Swing speaks at the
International Organization for Migration director-general William Lacy Swing speaks at the "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" regarding the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis at a hotel in Bangkok this morning. (AP photo)

Friday's much-anticipated international conference on the Southeast Asian migrant crisis began with calls to action, but quickly bogged down amid rebukes and conflict over one of the region’s most-contentious issues: Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

Thailand called the meeting of 17 countries and international organisations with the goal of finding a solution to the humanitarian crisis that has gripped Asean since the discovery of mass migrant graves in Songkhla province May 1.

The human-trafficking crackdown that followed disrupted normal people-smuggling routes and left thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants adrift at sea.

Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn opened the morning session with a call to action, saying the influx of boat migrants had reached an "alarming level". Just before the lunch break, Gen Tanasak disclosed that Thailand had 600 newly arrived boatpeople in temporary holding areas in the South.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn speaks at the "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" regarding the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis at a hotel in Bangkok this morning. (AP photo)

The deputy prime minister also announced that Thailand has approved a request to allow the US military to operate flights out of Thailand to search for migrants stuck on boats. So far, the US Navy flights have been operating out of Subang, Malaysia. Gen Tanasak said the Thailand-based missions can begin immediately.

Thailand so far has provided only humanitarian aid and dispatched a Royal Thai Navy task force to the Andaman Sea to act as a mobile operations base.

But "while we are trying to help those in need, we must stop the outflow of irregular migrants and combat transnational crime and destroy their networks," said Gen Tanasak, who also is deputy prime minister. "The root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed."

And that is where proceedings quickly moved from hopeful optimism to finger-pointing. Volker Turk, the UN  Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, said there could be no solution if root causes were not addressed.

"This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal," he said. "In the interim ... recognising that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required (as well as) access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms."

Myanmar's delegate, Foreign Ministry director-general Htin Linn, shot back in a speech afterward, saying Mr Turk should ''be more informed'' and casting doubt on whether "the spirit of cooperation is prevailing in the room".

Myanmar has denied citizenship to 1.3 million Rohingyas and initially said it would not even attend the conference if the word "Rohingya" was used. It has consistently denied any persecution of the Muslim minority and rejects any accusation its treatment of the Rohingya is a root cause of the crisis.

"Finger pointing will to serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere,'' Htin Linn said.

Htin Linn, the head of the Myanmar delegation, speaks at the "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" regarding the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis at a hotel in Bangkok today. (AP photo)

The tension exposed long-standing fractures among Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries. Asean governments have largely ignored the Rohingya issue for years.

"Asean countries have hidden behind the notion of 'non-interference' to turn a blind eye to the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, to the growth of criminal smuggling and human trafficking networks, and the increasing demand for undocumented labourers," Sam Zarifi, Asia director for the International Commission of Jurists said in a statement.

One indicator of that policy was the selection of low-level delegates for Friday's meeting.

Opening remarks are made at the "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" regarding the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis at a hotel in Bangkok Friday. (AP photo)

According to the Foreign Ministry, at least three of the countries central to the crisis did not send ministers: Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many of the officials attending are low-level bureaucrats, leading many to caution that the session much touted by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was unlikely to produce a binding agreement or plan of action.

Myanmar, in particular, said on Thursday it had no plans to reach an agreement in Bangkok.

"We are going there only to discuss the regional crisis which all of the Asean countries are facing," its delegation head, Htin Lin, told Reuters.

The United States' delegate to the meeting, however, said the thousands of stranded migrants need immediate rescue.

"We have to save lives urgently," US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard told reporters on her way into the meeting.

The director-general of the International Organisation for Migration, William Lacy Swing, also said earlier that a long-term, comprehensive policy has to be put together, and that no single element is going to solve the issue.

He added, ''I think Myanmar has to be engaged in any solution involving any of the groups, absolutely.''


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