RANGOON — A top US diplomat on Friday said the United States is committed to assisting Southeast Asian nations embroiled in an ongoing migrant crisis, urging the Burmese government to step up efforts to address root causes within its borders.
“The United States is here to help countries in the region save lives today, that has to be our first priority,” US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at the end of a two-day visit to Burma, where he met with President Thein Sein and other senior government officials to address a recent migrant exodus that has left thousands stranded at sea.
“Even as we address the immediate crisis, we also must confront its root causes in order to achieve a sustainable solution,” Blinken said, stressing that political and social conditions on the ground were causing people to flee.
Thousands of migrants and refugees from Burma and Bangladesh were abandoned by human traffickers in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait following a crackdown on the trade by Thai authorities earlier this month.
Most of the so-called “boat people” were found to be Rohingya Muslims fleeing desperate conditions in Burma’s western Arakan State, while others are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Burma’s Rohingya population, which numbers about 1.1 million people, are denied citizenship and viewed as illegal immigrants by the government, which refers to them as “Bengali.”
The group bore the brunt of inter-communal violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and about 140,000 more in isolated displacement camps where they are denied mobility and basic services.
Following the recent discovery of several boatloads of desperate and malnourished people—which had been refused entry to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia until Wednesday of this week—the Burmese government denied that the movement was caused by strife within its borders, claiming instead that the migrants were from Bangladesh.
Blinken debunked the claim on Friday, stating that, “a significant number, a majority, are in fact from Rakhine [Arakan] State, are Rohingya, and left because of desperate conditions that they faced in Rakhine State, and we discussed this with the leadership here.”
The State Department recommended finding a solution to prolonged displacement in Arakan State and establishing a path to citizenship for the beleaguered Muslim minority. While the Burmese government has made efforts to improve conditions in the troubled state, Blinken said, “manifestly, those efforts are not sufficient.”
Blinken’s trip to Burma was part of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia with other State Department officials, and was not expressly planned to address the migrant dilemma that developed in recent weeks.
The delegation, which also included US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Scott Marciel, expressed hope that a top-level meeting in Bangkok next week would produce a regional solution to the crisis.
Burma’s foreign ministry has committed to attending the meeting, hosted by the Thai government, on the condition that the term “irregular migrants” be used to refer to the Rohingya, the President’s Office told The New York Times.
Foreign ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia announced on Wednesday that they would grant temporary shelter for some 7,000 refugees, provided that the international community offer material assistance and resettlement within one year.
The government of Burma said this week that it would scrutinize migrants found near its shores, vowing to provide humanitarian assistance and repatriate those found to be Burmese citizens. On Thursday night the Burma Navy carried out its first search and rescue operation in the Bay of Bengal, bringing more than 200 people to shore.