Foreign envoys head to Myanmar after boatpeople breakthrough

SITTWE, Myanmar – Myanmar was to engage in talks for the first time Thursday, May 21, on the migrant exodus from its shores, with US and Southeast Asian envoys hoping to build on a breakthrough in an impasse which has left thousands stranded at sea.

Foreign ministers Anifah Aman of Malaysia and Retno Marsudi of Indonesia were to visit Naypyidaw a day after announcing their countries would end a much-condemned policy of turning away boatloads of starving migrants.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also to meet with Myanmar officials, as the United States said it stood ready to admit some of the migrants.

Blinken said he would raise the Myanmar government's discriminatory treatment of its Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which is widely blamed for fueling the crisis. (READ: Will world now pressure Myanmar over the Rohingya?)

"We will be talking directly to the government of Myanmar about its own responsibilities to improve conditions in Rakhine state so that people don't feel that their only choice is to put their lives at risk by leaving and taking to the sea," Blinken said during a stop Wednesday, May 20, in Jakarta.

Heading into Thursday's talks, Myanmar's government reiterated its refusal to recognize the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group. It insists they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. (FAST FACTS: Who are the Rohingya?)

"If they are going to discuss about Rohingya, as we have said before, we do not accept that term here," said Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office.

But he confirmed that Myanmar would attend a broader regional summit planned on the crisis in Bangkok on May 29, after the government this week softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.

The Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands annually, an outflow that has surged in recent years following sectarian violence pitting them against Myanmar's Buddhist majority.

A major humanitarian crisis had loomed as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refused to take in boats overloaded with exhausted and dying Rohingya, as well as economic migrants from Bangladesh. (READ: ASEAN’s disgraceful inaction on Rohingya refugees)

JOINT STATEMENT. Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi (R) and her Malaysian colleague, Anifah Aman (L) after a press conference on a meeting on the human trafficking and people smuggling issue, at Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 20, 2015. Fazry Ismail/EPA

JOINT STATEMENT. Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi (R) and her Malaysian colleague, Anifah Aman (L) after a press conference on a meeting on the human trafficking and people smuggling issue, at Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 20, 2015.

Fazry Ismail/EPA

But Malaysia and Indonesia relented, with Anifah and Marsudi announcing after talks in Malaysia's capital that their nations would accept and care for boatpeople for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn also took part in Wednesday's talks but Thailand did not sign on fully to the offer.

However, its foreign ministry later said it would no longer "push back migrants stranded in Thai waters".

US, others offer to help

Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the 3 countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.

Some traffickers are believed to have abandoned their human cargo at sea with scant food or water.

Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimates that about 7,000 people are still adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

The United States, Philippines and even Gambia in Africa have offered assistance or possible resettlement of Rohingya, evoking the coordinated response to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of boatpeople from Vietnam in the late 1970s.

A range of nations offered immediate help or long-term resettlement to the refugees after the Vietnam War, most going to the United States.

"The US stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today. We have a common obligation to answer the call of these migrants who have risked their lives at sea," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.

The United States would help the UN set up protection centers, and would consider requests to resettle some refugees, she said.

Hours before Malaysia and Indonesia changed tack, more than 400 starving migrants were rescued from their decrepit boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels Wednesday.

The boat had bounced between Thailand and Malaysia in recent days, rejected by authorities, as images of its emaciated Rohingya passengers – shot by Agence France-Presse and other media – shocked observers worldwide. – Kelly Macnamara, AFP / Rappler.com