Malaysian PM: send Muslim boat people back

Feb 27, 2009 (AFP), Malaysia’s prime minister has called for Burma’s Muslim boat people to be pushed back if they attempt to land on any Southeast Asian shores in search of asylum, a newspaper said Friday.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also took swipes at Burma and Thailand on the Rohingya issue, which has escalated into a major problem for the region and one of concern internationally.

Thousands of the stateless Rohingya have fled Burma as well as refugee camps in Bangladesh in recent years, but their plight was only highlighted recently when hundreds were believed to have drowned after being pushed out to sea by the Thai military.

"But if we cannot be firm we cannot deal with this problem. We have to be firm at all borders. We have to turn them back," Abdullah said in an interview with the English-language Bangkok Post.

The Malaysian leader arrived at this beach-side resort Friday for the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-nation bloc that includes Burma.

While the Rohingya issue is not part of the official agenda it appears to be taking up substantial time during sideline discussions at the three-day conference.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Burma has agreed to take some of the refugees back but gave few details and said the process would be "difficult." The Burma delegation has yet to make a public comment on the issue.

The Rohingyas ‚ not recognized as a distinct ethnicity by Burma’s government and thus denied citizenship ‚ number about 800,000 in that country.

Hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Middle East, and many rights groups have expressed concern that they will be abused if forced to return to Burma.

Burma’s consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, earlier this month described Rohingya people as "ugly as ogres" in a letter to media and diplomats.

Human rights groups have also been highly critical of Thailand for allegedly abusing groups of Rohingya whose rickety boats reached its shores and then towing them out to sea without adequate provisions or fuel for their craft. Thailand has denied the allegations.

Kasit, the Thai foreign minister, said ASEAN would work with Burma and Bangladesh to determine if the tens of thousands of Rohingya scattered around ASEAN countries come from Burma.

Asked about a timeframe he said it would be "difficult" because of the large numbers involved.

"Myanmar [Burma] says they will take them back if it can be proven they are Myanmar people of Bengali origin," Kasit said.

He said the Burmese government recognizes the Bengali, an ethnic minority group found mainly in Bangladesh, as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups.

But Abdullah expressed frustration in his interview with Burma’s unwillingness to take the boat people back.

"Of course, we know they come from Myanmar. When we ask Myanmar, they ask: ‘Are you sure they are our people? What evidence have you got?’" he said.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said work would soon begin "to define the issue with the Myanmar authorities of who these people are, how to refer to them and how to categorize them and how many of them and how we can help them."

Thailand earlier called for a special regional conference on the refugees, who often attempt to land in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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