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Burma’s Information Minister Ye Htut said that President Thein Sein explained his government’s position regarding the boat people crisis in the Andaman Sea when he met with US Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Naypyidaw on Thursday.
Accompanying Thein Sein and Ye Htut at the meeting were: Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko, Defence Minister Lt-Gen Wai Lwin, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and President’s Office Minister Aung Min, better known for his role as the government’s chief negotiator at ceasefire talks with Burma’s ethnic armed groups.
Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Ye Htut said that Burmese officials outlined to their US counterparts the government’s plans to deal with the crisis.
“Firstly, we will verify if there are any Burmese citizens among the boat people stranded at sea,” he said. “If their Burmese citizenship can be proven, we will provide them all the necessary assistance and protection.
“Secondly, we will process any boat people who enter Burmese waters and provide them with the necessary assistance and protection, before sending them back to the relevant countries.
“We also explained to the US officials about the recent case with 11 Bangladeshi citizens,” he said, referring to a repatriation effort the Burmese navy carried out earlier this week when it picked up Bangladeshi refugees who reportedly drifted to shore near Maungdaw in Arakan State after being forced to jump from a boat on which they were travelling.
“And thirdly,” Ye Htut told reporters, “we are preparing to send a Foreign Ministry delegation to the [boat people crisis] talks [in Bangkok] on 29 May.”
He added that the president pointed out to the US delegation the importance of other countries in the region working together to suppress human trafficking rings.
The meeting with the US assistant secretary of state, who was accompanied by US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, also involved discussions about Burma’s upcoming general election, constitutional amendments, and promoting bilateral ties between the two countries, the information minister said.
At a separate meeting with Blinken on Thursday, Burma’s military chief warned about the possibility of Rohingya boat people claiming to be refugees from Burma in order to claim UN rations.
“The country of origin is the first thing to consider when it comes to troubled boat people,” Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was quoted by state media as telling the US diplomat.
While pledging that his armed forces would carry out rescue efforts, Min Aung Hlaing also cast doubt on the veracity of the status of the migrants, saying, “Most victims are expected to assume themselves to be Rohingyas from Myanmar in the hope of receiving assistance from UNHCR.”
He added that Burma had no policy of “pushing Myanmar citizens to leave the country,” according to Friday’s report in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
Naypyidaw on Thursday announced that Vice President Nyan Tun will lead efforts to verify the citizenship of migrants if they enter Burmese waters.
According to a US spokesperson, in Thursday’s meetings Blinken “expressed [the US’s] ongoing support for [Burma’s] democratic reforms and the elections and also raised our deep concerns about the thousands of vulnerable migrants stranded at sea.”
The White House’s Marie Harf also said that Blinken had “stressed the need for Burma to address the root causes of this migration, including the racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence facing the Rohingya population in Rakhine state.”
The assistant secretary of state on Thursday also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom he discussed the situation in Arakan State, according to Harf. Blinken is due to hold a press conference in Rangoon on Friday afternoon.
Foreign ministers Anifah Aman of Malaysia and Retno Marsudi of Indonesia were also in Naypyidaw to meet Thein Sein on Thursday, a day after announcing their countries would end a much-condemned policy of turning away boatloads of migrants.