A member of the Malaysian Navy stands guard as a truck carrying Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants arrives at a naval base in Langkawi Wednesday so they can be transferred to a mainland immigration depot (AFP Photo/Manan Vatsyayana)
Southeast Asia must send a "very strong message" to Myanmar to stop oppressing its Rohingya minority, who are part of a surge in boat people raising fears of a regional humanitarian crisis, a Malaysian government official said Thursday.
Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said Southeast Asia's growing refugee problem was due in large part to Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya, a Muslim minority that faces state discrimination and has been targeted in recent sectarian violence.
"Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people," Wan Junaidi said.
"So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive."
Malaysia said this week it would turn away boats bearing desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh unless they are in imminent danger of sinking, following in the footsteps of neighboring Indonesia.
At least 2,000 boat people have been rescued, swum to shore or turned away in Malaysia and Indonesia since last weekend.
Just last night, Malaysia turned away two vessels carrying a combined 600 migrants, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday.
The boats were intercepted off the northern Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi and told they could not land.
"Last night, one boat was pushed back after it entered Malaysian waters off Penang and one more boat was prevented from entering Langkawi waters," the official said.
The boat off Penang was given bottled water before it was sent away.
Migrants groups warn that repelling boats could amount to a death sentence for people already at risk from starvation and disease after long weeks at sea, with recent arrivals saying many of their fellow passengers had died on the sea passage, their bodies thrown overboard.
Migrants-rights advocates also say thousands more men, women and children are believed stuck out at sea or abandoned by smugglers, who are trying to evade capture after a Thai police crackdown disrupted people-smuggling routes.
Malaysia already has tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who are drawn to the country's relative prosperity and the fact that it is Muslim-majority.
"We cannot keep being the only ones responsible for taking them in," Wan Junaidi said.
He expects the issue to be taken up this year in further meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Malaysia is this year's chair of ASEAN — which also includes Myanmar.
ASEAN members are forbidden from interfering in each other's internal affairs, but Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said recently the Rohingya problem was becoming an "international" one that needed to be discussed.
More than 1.3 million Rohingya — viewed by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities — live in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.
They are essentially stateless, with Buddhist-majority Myanmar denying them citizenship and treating them as unwanted foreigners.
Wan Junaidi also took a shot at Bangladesh, another major source of migrants to Southeast Asia.
"Many come from Bangladesh. So what is happening in Bangladesh? Is that not supposed to be a democratic country? It seems there is a serious problem there," he said. AFP