KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's prime minister said Thursday he has ordered the navy and coast guard to comb the sea to look for stranded migrants, the first country to announce it will search for the refugees in desperate need of help instead of waiting for them to wash up on Southeast Asia's shores.
In a positive sign, Myanmar — the country which many of the refugees, ethnic Rohingya, are fleeing — said it will attend a regional meeting in Bangkok next Friday, creating a chance for the nations most affected by the crisis to discuss long-term solutions. Earlier, it hinted it would skip the meeting, which will bring together more than a dozen governments from the region and beyond.
The decision came as Malaysia's foreign minister was scheduled to visit Myanmar. The ministry issued a delicately worded statement saying the two sides would "exchange views on irregular movements of people ... in Southeast Asia," using politically correct language so as not to offend Myanmar, which refuses to shoulder any blame for the crisis or discuss the matter if the word "Rohingya" is mentioned.
In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 people — Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty — have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. After initially pushing many boats back, Malaysia and Indonesia announced on Wednesday that they will offer temporary shelter to incoming migrants.
Although the announcement was seen as a major breakthrough, rights groups said the proposal addressed only part of the problem, and urged countries to start actively searching for those stranded at sea. The U.N. refugee agency believes that more than 3,000 could still be at sea, although some activists put the number at 6,000.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak addressed the concern via Twitter, saying he had ordered the navy and coast guard "to conduct search and rescue efforts (for) Rohingya boats. We have to prevent loss of life."
Malaysian navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said the navy has deployed four vessels and will render assistance if they see any migrant boats. Three helicopters and three other naval boats are on standby and will be deployed if necessary, he said.
Aid groups estimate that thousands are adrift on vessels without food and water, following a crackdown on human traffickers that prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.
The U.N. says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even the name Rohingya is taboo. Myanmar officials refer to the group as "Bengalis" and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.
Over the past few years, Myanmar's Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.
While Indonesia and Malaysia said Wednesday they would temporarily take in some refugees for up to one year, they also appealed for international help, saying the crisis is a global, not a regional, problem.
So far there have been two offers from the international community.
In Washington, the State Department said Wednesday the United States was willing to take in Rohingya refugees as part of international efforts to cope with the crisis. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort, organized by the United Nations refugee agency, to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.
The tiny African country of Gambia has also said it was willing to take in Rohingya refugees. "As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is (our) sacred duty to help," the presidency said in a statement.
The No. 2 U.S. diplomat, currently visiting Southeast Asia, said he would raise the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya when he meets with senior Myanmar government leaders on Thursday.
"The only sustainable solution to the problem is changing the conditions that let them put their lives at risk at the first place," Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters in Jakarta.
Gecker reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writers Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.