A Myanmar military officer gestures from a boat packed with migrants off Leik Island in the Andaman Sea
By Tim McLaughlin
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar said a boat crammed with 727 migrants that it has kept stranded at sea for days was now being escorted to a "safe" area for identity checks and the United States said it believed those aboard would be allowed ashore in Myanmar this week.
"The operation is starting. They will be taken to a safe destination," Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut told Reuters by telephone, adding that the migrants had been provided with food and water. He would not disclose that location due to "security and safety concerns".
Earlier, Ye Htut had said Myanmar's navy was taking the converted fishing boat to Bangladeshi waters, prompting its neighbor to underline that it would take back only those who were genuinely its citizens, but he later clarified his remarks to say the verification process would take place first.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said she believed the Myanmar government had decided to allow the migrants to disembark in Myanmar on Wednesday or Thursday, something Washington welcomed.
"We urge (Myanmar) to provide full protection and assistance to these migrants in coordination with UNHCR and IOM, Marie Harf said, referring to the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration.
The 727 migrants are the among an estimated 2,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, that could still be at sea after being abandoned by people-smuggling gangs since a crackdown started last month in Thailand, the U.N. said.
The migrants were found drifting in the Andaman Sea on Friday in an overloaded fishing boat that was taking on water.
Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project tracks the movement of Rohingya boats, said the migrants should be put ashore immediately and the United Nations should have access to them to provide assistance and identify who they are.
IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told a news briefing in Geneva the organization was concerned the boat might be taken to Bangladeshi waters and was worried about migrants "not being given due places to land and continuing to suffer while they are aboard these vessels".
Myanmar's government initially labeled the migrants on the overloaded boat "Bengalis", a term it applies to both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, a mostly stateless Muslim minority of about 1.1 million living in apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
PRESSURE ON MYANMAR
Myanmar has been under increased international pressure to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas after a seaborne exodus mushroomed last month into a regional crisis with around 4,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi "boat people" landing on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama said Myanmar needed to end discrimination against Rohingyas in order to make its fledgling democracy a success.
A Myanmar navy officer who declined to be named told Reuters on Sunday that some migrants aboard the crowded boat could speak a dialect that is used in Rakhine state but not widely spoken in Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi foreign ministry official said only migrants identified as Bangladeshi nationals would be brought back to the country.
Lewa said some Rohingya would be reluctant to identify themselves as such because, if they are unable to provide identification, they could be jailed in Myanmar for illegal immigration.
On May 26, Myanmar said it had reached an agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate 200 Bangladeshis who were among 208 men rescued from a boat off the Myanmar coast last week.
Both Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty at home have become prey to human traffickers.
On Tuesday, a three-star Thai general accused of involvement in human trafficking turned himself in to authorities, the most high profile among scores of suspects wanted as part of the drive to end an illicit business.
Police say 51 arrests have been made so far in a campaign that has also brought the grim discovery of scores of graves along the jungle-clad border dividing Thailand and Malaysia.
Scott Busby, the U.S. Deputy Assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, on Tuesday welcomed an agreement last week between affected countries to address "root causes" of the exodus, but said Myanmar should make a start by granting Rohingyas citizenship.
Hollywood actor Matt Dillon was in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, on Monday to highlight the plight of the Rohingya. He visited a camp for displaced Rohingya and a fishing village from which many migrants had left on smugglers' boats.
"I saw a grim situation, a lot of barbed wire ... The residential area was ghettoised," Dillon told reporters in Bangkok. "I felt that this is a very vulnerable group. These people are the most desperate of the desperate."
(Additional reporting by Reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Simon Webb in BANGKOK, Ruma Paul in DHAKA, Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH, Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Alex Richardson)