BANGKOK - Myanmar rebuked the UN Friday after being called on to address the cause of the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from its shores, saying it is being "singled out" for criticism at international talks.
Tensions over Southeast Asia's migrant crisis were exposed as delegates from 17 nations gathered to address the flight of thousands of desperate people on boats across the Bay of Bengal, aiming for Malaysia and Indonesia.
The crisis unfurled at the start of this month after a Thai crackdown on people smuggling threw the multi-million dollar industry into disarray.
It led gangmasters to abandon their victims on land and at sea, and images of stick-thin, dazed migrants trapped on boats or stumbling onto shores and out of forests shocked the world, heaping pressure on Southeast Asian nations to act.
But observers say it is unclear what the one-day meeting, which is not being attended at a ministerial level, can achieve on an issue that has dogged the region for years but gone largely ignored by authorities.
In his opening remarks, Volker Turk, UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection, urged Myanmar to tackle the flow of Rohingya Muslims, who for years have been fleeing persecution in western Myanmar.
To address the root causes "will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar to all its people," Turk said.
"Granting of citizenship is the ultimate goal." Myanmar denies citizenship to the majority of its 1.3 million Rohingya and does not accept them as an official ethnic minority, instead calling them "Bengalis" - shorthand for foreigners from neighbouring Bangladesh.
His comments prompted a rebuke from Myanmar's delegate, Foreign Ministry Director-General Htin Lynn, who said "this issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country." Myanmar routinely rejects any internationalisation of the question of the status of the Muslim minority, since communal violence in 2012 between Rohingya and the Buddhist majority in western Rakhine State brought their plight to the fore.
Htin Lynn called Volker's comments a "politicisation" of the migrant subject, and added that "some issues" are internal matters.
'Blind eye to persecution'
Bangkok began its belated crackdown on the smuggling trade in the country's deep south on May 1, after dozens of bodies were pulled from mass graves in a remote border area studded by migrant camps.
On the Malaysian side of the same frontier, authorities have found 139 suspected migrants' graves, raising fears that both officials and residents had turned a blind eye to the lucrative business.
More than 3,500 starving migrants have since arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil while the UN estimates there are 2,500 more still feared trapped at sea as the monsoon season approaches.
The vast majority of migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, or Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty.
Observers have cast doubt over the capacity of Southeast Asian neighbours to act on a cross-border issue which has exposed gaping holes in the rule of law across several countries.
"ASEAN countries have hidden behind the notion of 'non-interference' to turn a blind eye to the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, to the growth of criminal smuggling and human trafficking networks, and the increasing demand for undocumented labourers," Sam Zarifi, Asia director for the International Commission of Jurists said in a statement.
Countries attending the talks include those directly affected by the current crisis such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia - all of whom vacillated for days before bowing to international pressure to offer humanitarian aid to migrants trapped at sea.
All three nations say they now are actively searching for any remaining boats adrift in their waters, while the US has sent reconnaissance flights over the seas.
Diplomatic pressure is mounting on Myanmar and Bangladesh as to why so many of their citizens flee their shores.
Myanmar's Rohingya are one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
They face restrictions on movement, jobs and family size, while their pariah status means they are unrepresented - even Myanmar's democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi chooses not to extert her moral authority on their behalf.
The former junta-led quasi-civilian government has balked at any criticism of its treatment of the community and has previously threatened to pull out of the talks altogether if the word Rohingya is used.
Other countries attending have a less obvious direct link to the Southeast Asian migrant crisis, such as Afghanistan, India, Iran and Papua New Guinea.
All those attending are below minister level, apart from Thailand's junta-appointed Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn.
The United States, which is attending as an observer, is set later Friday to pledge financial assistance to tackle the crisis.