Myanmar navy carries out first rescue of migrant boat

By Hla-Hla Htay and Kelly Macnamara ,AFP

SITTWE, Myanmar — Myanmar’s navy Friday said it had carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat after mounting international pressure, as the U.N. 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 recognized 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 neighboring 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 spokeswoman 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 �X 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 health care 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 Calls on Myanmar to Make Rohingya Citizens to End Boat Crisis A senior U.S. diplomat on Friday urged Myanmar to extend ��citizenship�� to the oppressed Rohingya minority to address an ongoing migrant crisis that has hit Southeast Asia, leaving thousands stranded at sea.

��They should have a path to citizenship,�� Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Yangon, referring to the Rohingya �X 1.3 million of whom live in Myanmar yet are dismissed as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants by the authorities. In comments a day after talks with Myanmar leaders, Blinken added ��the uncertainty that comes from not having any status is one of the things that may drive people to leave.�� Blinken said the fact that Rohingya were willing ��to put their lives in jeopardy�� on deadly sea crossings was a ��reflection of conditions in Rakhine state that are leading people to make this choice.�� ��Even if we address the immediate crisis, we also must confront its root causes in order to achieve a sustainable solution,�� Blinken said.

Myanmar’s government however has reiterated its refusal to recognize the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group, preferring to call them ��Bengalis�� �X shorthand for illegal migrants. ��We do not accept that term (Rohingya) here,�� said Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office said on Thursday.