Myanmar brought ashore more than 700 people it had kept at sea for days aboard a seized vessel, as the United States on Wednesday called on the country to solve its worsening migrant crisis by recognizing the rights of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
U.S. President Barack Obama has sought to make Myanmar's transition to democracy a legacy of his presidency, and Washington is stepping up pressure on the Southeast Asian nation to tackle what it sees as the root causes of an exodus of migrants across the Bay of Bengal, which the region has struggled to handle.
The 727 migrants were found drifting in the Andaman Sea on May 29 in an overloaded fishing boat that was taking on water. Myanmar's navy brought the vessel to the coast of western Rakhine state, where they disembarked on Wednesday.
Scores of migrant men were made to sit on the ground at the landing spot near the town of Maungdaw, close to the border with Bangladesh, a witness told Reuters. Others assembled inside a warehouse, and all were being watched over by dozens of police, the witness said. There were no aid personnel yet at the site, he added.
At least 47 bodies have washed to shore in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine in the last month, Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has been monitoring activities in Rakhine for more than a decade, said Wednesday. Many bodies were so badly decomposed they were unrecognizable. Some were believed to be Rohingya Muslims trying to escape trafficking ships, while others were Bangladeshi.
Ye Htut, spokesman for Myanmar’s president, and other officials were in meetings and could not immediately be reached for comment. Rakhine State Minister Maung Maung Ohn said his office was checking into the report.
Many of the more than 4,000 migrants who have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar since the Thai government launched a crackdown on people-smuggling gangs are Rohingya who say they are escaping persecution.
Myanmar does not recognize its 1.1 million-strong Rohingya minority as citizens, and many have fled the apartheid-like conditions of the country's Rakhine state. Myanmar denies it discriminates against them.
"Rohingyas need to be treated as citizens of Burma," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard told reporters at a press briefing in Jakarta, using the country's former name.
"They need to have identity cards and passports that make clear they are as much citizens of Burma as anyone else."
Politicians in Myanmar were focused on a historic general election scheduled for November, Richard said, which was hindering political discussion of the status of the Rohingya, who are deeply resented by many of Rakhine's Buddhist majority.
Opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for failing to speak out on behalf of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups, including the Rohingya.
"We would love to see all Burmese leaders speak up on human rights and to realize that they should help the Rohingya," Richard said. "The boats are not going to wait until December — the people on the boats need help right now."
Richard said that the United States was not considering imposing sanctions on Myanmar over the issue, but that sanctions were always "in the diplomatic toolbox."
At an international meeting on the migrant crisis in Bangkok on Friday, Myanmar bristled when the United Nations raised the citizenship issue and when other delegates blamed the country for the problem.
"You cannot single out my country," said Myanmar's head of delegation Htein Lin.
The U.S. president said in a routine note to Congress last month that Washington —while not curtailing engagement with Myanmar — would maintain some sanctions on the country.
Many Bangladeshis fleeing poverty at home have joined the Rohingya on the boats.
Around 800 Bangladeshis were among more than 1,800 migrants who landed in Indonesia's Aceh in May, Thomas Vargas, the representative to Indonesia for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told reporters at the same press briefing on Wednesday.
Among the group of 1,800 were some 350 unaccompanied minors, he said.
Vargas reiterated a U.N. estimate that around 2,000 people were still at sea and said the first priority for nations involved in the crisis and for international organizations should be to save lives.