US urges Myanmar to make Rohingya citizens to end boat crisis

Sittwe (Myanmar) (AFP) - A senior US 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.

More than 3,500 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh since a Thai crackdown in early May on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.

Myanmar, where many of the migrants start their journey, has faced increasing international pressure to stem the exodus from its shores and deliver urgent humanitarian relief to thousands still trapped at sea.

On Friday Myanmar said its navy had carried out its first rescue of a boat stacked with around 200 migrants in the Bay of Bengal, in a sign of compromise after widespread criticism for not taking any responsibility for the crisis.

The widespread persecution of the impoverished Muslim community in Myanmar's western Rakhine state is one of the primary causes for the current crisis, alongside growing numbers trying to escape poverty in neighbouring Bangladesh.

"They should have a path to citizenship," Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Yangon, referring to the Rohingya -- 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 recognise the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group, preferring to call them "Bengalis" -- shorthand for illegal migrants.

"We do not accept that term (Rohingya) here," said Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office said on Thursday.

- Monsoon looms -

The rescue by Myanmar's navy 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 with monsoon rains looming.

"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 lead to 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.

Giving updated figures the International Organization for Migration said that over 3,600 people had disembarked in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh since the beginning of the crisis.

A trickle of would-be migrants have also recently returned to Myanmar after relatives raised funds to buy them back from smugglers.

On Thursday the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia -- whose countries are destination points for Rohingya fleeing persecution -- met Myanmar officials as pressures mount to stem the migrant exodus from its shores.

Earlier this week, Malaysia and Indonesia relented on a hardline policy of pushing back the boats, and said their nations would accept the migrants for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

Myanmar has seen surging Buddhist nationalism in recent years and spates of violence targeting Muslim minorities have raised doubts over its much vaunted reforms after decades of harsh military rule.

A raft of laws are being considered spanning interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates, which are seen by activists as particularly discriminatory against women and minorities -- with the already marginalised Rohingya likely to be affected.

Both the US and UN have raised particular concerns about the laws proposed by President Thein Sein, seen as a response to campaigns by hardline Buddhist monks in a key election year.

Noble Peace Prize winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is yet to comment on the current crisis, a silence that observers attribute to fears over alienating a swathe of the electorate just months ahead of the polls.