SITTWE - 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.