By P Prem Kumar
Malaysia will issue a stern warning to Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue, an official said Monday, as Southeast Asian countries started to ratchet up pressure on Yangon to tackle a crisis that has left thousands of migrants stranded.
Since 2012, Rohingya Muslims - who the United Nations consider to be the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority - have been fleeing Myanmar in droves, in fear of violence that some human rights groups consider to be state-sponsored.
In the past week, boats packed with Rohingya - and Bangladeshi - have been turning up on Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian shores, while many more remain at sea.
A foreign ministry official who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media told Anadolu Agency that Malaysia is expected to make the call as ASEAN chair during a proposed meeting with the foreign ministers of Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand this week.
"The meeting is slated by the end of this week. But Myanmar has yet to respond to the Malaysian foreign ministry's request for an official meeting to deliberate on the issue," he said.
Since Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking in its southern region May 1, boatloads of the migrants – mostly fleeing Myanmar -- have beached in the three countries.
On Monday it arrested the suspected kingpin of the human trafficking network, charging him with smuggling illegal migrant workers into Thailand, human trafficking, detention of others leading to bodily harm and holding people for ransom.
The Bangkok Post reported that police suspect Patchuban Angchotipan, a former Satun province official, was the boss of a large network.
In the wake of the crackdown, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have announced plans to turn the vessels back, unless they are unseaworthy and sinking. Thailand has since reneged, however, saying it may let smaller boats in.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is "increasingly concerned" about the migrant's plight.
He said that UN officials have made phone calls with Malaysian, Indonesian, Bangladeshi and Thai officials in recent days to urge them to uphold international law regarding their rescue.
Little has been said of a Sunday meet between foreign ministers from Malaysia and Bangladesh to discuss related issues, but the unnamed official told Anadolu Agency that Malaysia will now host Indonesian and Thai counterparts for talks on the migrant crisis Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur.
"If Myanmar fails to respond by then [Wednesday], then Malaysia will use a certain clause of ASEAN chairmanship to call for the grouping's emergency meeting to deliberate on the matter in a larger scale," he added.
He said Malaysia remains hopeful for a reply from Myanmar’s government.
A senior Myanmar official has lashed out at mounting international pressure on the country to join the talks.
The Myanmar Times reported Monday that a director of the president’s office had criticized Malaysia and Thailand for attempting to shift the blame to Myanmar over a matter that he said was down to human traffickers and corrupt officials.
“As countries in ASEAN region, they need to deal with their own weaknesses and problems boldly. Their guilt won’t disappear if they just put the blame on Myanmar,” U Zaw Htay wrote in a Facebook post.
Inter-governmental agency the International Organization for Migration has estimated that 8,000 migrants smuggled from either western Myanmar or Bangladesh are currently on boats in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits.
The deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch has accused Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia of playing games with the boats and putting the lives of those on board at risk.
Last week, over 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were reported to have landed illegally on the Malaysian island of Langkawi. Indonesia is understood to be sheltering around 1,500 boat people.
With the situation showing no signs of improving, Bangkok has called on international organizations to pressure Myanmar after it threatened to boycott a May 29 regional meeting aimed at solving the crisis.
The UN has also encouraged leaders to participate in the summit, with Ban saying in Sunday’s statement that he hopes it "will lead to comprehensive outcomes at the regional and international levels."
Myanmar has said it will not attend the meeting if the word "Rohingya" is mentioned on the invitation.
Myanmar refuses to identify the Muslims who live in Western Rakhine state as "Rohingya," preferring to use the term Bengali which suggests they are migrants from Bangladesh.
*Anadolu Agency correspondents Max Constant and Mustafa Caglayan contributed to this story from Bangkok and Washington respectively.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.