US President Barack Obama has lauded the Indonesian government for taking thousands of displaced Rohingya migrants who were stranded in rickety boats off the coasts of Southeast Asian countries after they fled from persecution in Myanmar.
"I want to commend Indonesia and Malaysia for their willingness to take on thousands of these displaced persons," Obama said as he hosted a dialogue with participants of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiatives (YSEALI) at the White House, in Washington, DC on Monday.
In past weeks, nearly 3,000 migrant from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued or swum to shore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Several thousand more are believed to be trapped on boats at sea with little food or water in a crisis sparked by smugglers abandoning their human cargo after a Thai crackdown on long-established human-trafficking routes.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand sparked outrage for driving off some overloaded boats, but there was a breakthrough in the crisis when Malaysia and Indonesia said they would no longer turn away migrants.
Obama said that the US had put over US$100 million (S$130 million) into Myanmar to make sure that minority groups, including the Rohingya, would be protected against discrimination.
Obama urged Myanmar to put an end to discrimination against Rohingyas if it wanted to succeed in its transition to democracy.
He said that seeking solutions to problems faced by a minority would be a test of democracy in Myanmar, which is undergoing a transition after decades of military rule.
"I think one of the most important things is to put an end to discrimination against people because of what they look like or what their faith is and the Rohingya have been discriminated against and that's part of the reason they're fleeing," he said.
Obama said he learned directly about discrimination during the four years of his childhood he spent in Indonesia after he arrived in Jakarta in 1967.
"When I was living in Indonesia, there were times when there were anti-Chinese riots. They were very violent and vicious and, in fact, sometimes the Chinese-Indonesians were treated very similarly to how Jewish Europeans were treated in Europe and subject to stereotypes and resentments," he said.
On the other hand, Indonesia's close neighbour, Singapore, has a better record in avoiding conflicts within various ethnic groups.
"And the truth of matter is one of the reasons Singapore has been successful is that it has been able to bring together people who may look different, but they all think themselves as part of Singapore. That has to be a strength, not weaknesses," Obama said.
Despite having had a series of ethnic clashes in the past, Obama commended the Indonesian government for having been able to build a society that has religious tolerance.
"To their credit, the Indonesian government when I was growing up was very good about not discriminating on the base of religion despite the fact that it was 98 per cent Muslim and I think that the tolerance of other faith is historically in Indonesia has been part of what contributed to the progress there," he said.
On the migrant issue, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Anne C. Richard expressed her country's commitment, including on financial aid, to help resolve the issue facing Asia. "Of the $26 million we proposed, we have only approved $3 million on May 29 to deal with the boat people who are currently accommodated in several Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand," said Richard during a visit to Aceh. - See more at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/06/04/obama-commends-ri-taking-rohingyas.html#sthash.DOPp4Xk9.dpuf