Malaysia orders search for boatpeople as Myanmar hosts talks with envoys

SITTWE, Myanmar - Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions Thursday for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea, as Myanmar prepared talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores.

The rescue order, the first proactive official move to save persecuted Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshi economic migrants, comes a day after Malaysia and Indonesia said they would end a policy of turning away boats.

"We have to prevent loss of life," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on his Facebook account, announcing the measure. Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told AFP his country had not made a similar order but the issue was "something that will be discussed".

As the migrant crisis unfolded, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand for days refused to take in boats overloaded with exhausted passengers fleeing poverty or persecution.

But on Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia relented, announcing their nations would accept boatpeople for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

The policy about-turn was welcomed by the United States, whose Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to raise the plight of the Rohingya meet with Myanmar officials in Naypyidaw, as his country said it stood ready to admit some of the migrants.

The meeting was expected to take place late Thursday.

Malysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi Aman were also set to meet Myanmar officials for bilateral talks. No further details were immediately available on the meetings.

'I don't want to go'

The Rohingya flee in droves each year, an exodus that has surged following sectarian violence in 2012 pitting them against local Buddhists in the western state of Rakhine.

News of the diplomatic breakthrough was on Thursday yet to trickle down to the displaced Rohingya lodged in ramshackle camps around the state capital Sittwe.

But with the people-smuggling route to Thailand currently blocked, some Rohingya communities were trying to raise funds to pay off the smugglers and buy back their loved ones stranded on boats at sea awaiting transit south.

"I do not want to go. I saw what happened to the people in the sea and it's scary," said one displaced Rohingya man in the Anauk San Pya camp.

Tearful mothers holding photographs pleaded for help locate their children who have not made contact since they left on boats weeks ago, an AFP reporter at the camp said.

But the fate of the Rohingya remains an incendiary issue in Myanmar.

Heading into Thursday's talks, Myanmar's government reiterated its refusal to recognise the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group.

It insists they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

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

But he confirmed that Myanmar would attend a broader regional summit planned on the crisis in Bangkok on May 29, after the government this week softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.

Thailand also took part in Wednesday's talks in Kuala Lumpur but did not sign on fully to the offer. However, its foreign ministry later said it would no longer "push back migrants stranded in Thai waters".

US, others offer to help

Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coastlines of the three countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.

Some traffickers are believed to have abandoned their human cargo at sea with scant food or water.

Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimated that about 7,000 people were still adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

The United States, Philippines and even Gambia in Africa have offered assistance or possible resettlement of Rohingya, evoking the coordinated response to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of boatpeople from Vietnam in the late 1970s.

Hours before Malaysia and Indonesia changed tack, more than 400 starving migrants were rescued from their decrepit boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels Wednesday.

The boat had bounced between Thailand and Malaysia in recent days, rejected by authorities, as images of its emaciated Rohingya passengers - captured by AFP and other media - shocked observers worldwide. Some of the new arrivals are staying in hastily erected tents in Aceh, many are dehydrated and ill.

"If the government of Indonesia return us to Myanmar, it is the same as killing us," said Sohidullah, 45, who said he used to be a teacher in that country.

"There's no future in Myanmar for Rohingya... there's no hope there."