BANGKOK — A regional conference called to address the swelling tide of boat people in Southeast Asia ended Friday with no major breakthroughs, as Myanmar criticized those blaming it for fueling the crisis and warned that "finger pointing" would not help.
But delegates agreed on one thing at least— the need to keep talking.
In Myanmar, state television announced the navy had seized 727 migrants found on a boat a few dozen miles (kilometers) off the coast of the Irrawaddy Delta region, the latest vessel found in the last few weeks. The report identified those on board as "Bengalis" — a reference to Bangladesh — and said they were taken to a nearby island. Forty-five of them were children.
Friday's meeting in Bangkok was attended by representatives of 17 countries directly or indirectly affected by the growing crisis, along with the United States and Japan and officials from international organizations such as the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration. That so many countries — including Myanmar — participated was considered progress in itself.
"The most encouraging result was the general consensus that these discussions need to continue," said IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing. "It cannot be a one-off."
Southeast Asia has been beset for years by growing waves of desperate migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the last several weeks alone, at least 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have made their way ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown that has unearthed the graves of dozens of people who died while being kept hostage in illegal trafficking camps.
Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which has denied them basic rights, confined more than 100,000 to camps and denies them citizenship. There are more than 1 million Rohingya living in the country formerly known as Burma.
At the start of the meeting, the U.N.'s assistant high commissioner for refugees responsible for protection, Volker Turk, said there could be no solution if root causes are not addressed.
"This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal," he said. "In the interim ... recognizing that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required (as well as) access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms."
Htin Linn, the acting director of Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Ministry, shot back in a speech afterward, saying Turk should "be more informed." He also cast doubt on whether "the spirit of cooperation is prevailing in the room. ... Finger pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere."
The word "Rohingya" did not appear on the invitation for the meeting, after Myanmar threatened to boycott the talks if it did, and most people who spoke at Friday's meeting avoided saying it. Myanmar's government does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group, arguing instead they are really Bangladeshis. Bangladesh also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens.
An official summary of the meeting included a list of proposals and recommendations that were "put forward," including ensuring the U.N. has access to migrants and addressing the issue's root causes. It was not clear that any of them had been agreed on, however, or that they would be implemented.
There were small signs of progress. Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn said Bangkok agreed to allow the U.S. military to operate flights out of Thailand to search for migrants stuck on boats — one week after Washington put in a request to do so. And the U.S. pledged $3 million to help the IOM deal with the crisis, while Australia pledged $4.6 million toward humanitarian assistance in Myanmar.
Southeast Asian governments have largely ignored the issue for years. The problem has recently attracted international attention amid increased media scrutiny as more migrants and refugees pour out of the Bay of Bengal. In many cases, they pay human smugglers for passage to another country, but are instead held for weeks or months while traffickers extort more money from their families back home. Rights groups say some migrants have been beaten to death.
Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the people still stranded at sea, and to put pressure on Myanmar to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.
Swing said more than 160,000 people have fled into Southeast Asia since 2012, 25,000 of them this year.
"These are large numbers, but this is not an invasion or an inundation. It is something that is entirely manageable if we can come together as a community with the right policies," he said, adding that one of the challenges is changing the way migrants are viewed.
"Now it's a fairly toxic narrative, a fairly negative one," Swing said. But he said many nations were "built on the backs of migrants and with the minds of migrants. We need to ... look upon migrants as opportunities rather than a problem."
That will not be easy. Most countries in the region view the boat people as a burden, and refugees have been ping-ponged back and forth between Southeast Asian nations that have long tried to push them away.
In a turnaround, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed this month to provide Rohingya with shelter for one year. It is unclear what will happen after that, though both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement and the U.S. has offered to take some in. Thailand has offered humanitarian help but not shelter.
"No country can solve this problem alone," Thanasak said at the start of Friday's conference.
Myanmar, meanwhile, released the results of its first census since 1982, putting the country's population at 51.5 million. The figure announced by the Population Ministry included an estimate of more than 1 million people categorized by the U.N. as Rohingya. They were not physically counted in the census operation "to avoid the possibility of violence occurring due to intercommunal tensions," the ministry said.
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman in Bangkok and Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.