YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar said Thursday that thousands of migrants left the country to seek better jobs elsewhere, and were not fleeing persecution, a day after bringing to shore about 730 migrants, the latest arrivals in Southeast Asia's ongoing crisis.
Foreign Affairs Minister Wunna Maung Lwin's remarks were Myanmar's latest denial of any blame for the humanitarian crisis. More than 4,600 desperate and hungry boat people have been rescued in five countries since early May after a regional crackdown on smugglers prompted some captains to abandon their human cargo at sea.
The United Nations has said about half of those who have come ashore were Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar, and the rest were Bangladeshis escaping poverty.
"It is not true that the migrants from Myanmar fled because of discrimination or persecution in Myanmar," the foreign minister said during a briefing to foreign diplomats about the crisis. "They are just the victims of human smugglers."
"These are migrants who are seeking better jobs in other countries," he added.
Myanmar authorities intercepted boats packed with more than 730 people and brought the group ashore Wednesday in western Rakhine state, said Wunna Maung Lwin. Those on board included 611 men, 72 women and 51 children whose nationalities the government was still verifying, he said.
"Those who are verified as citizens of Bangladesh will be sent back to their country starting Sunday," he said. "Myanmar is not in a position to give assistance to the migrants long term, as it is a developing country."
U.N. agencies and other groups said they were not getting full access to the verification process, which is seen as crucial to ensure that Myanmar is not falsely labelling Rohingya on the boat as citizens of Bangladesh.
"We are still trying to get full access to the 700-plus who just landed," said Dom Scalpelli, country director for the U.N.'s World Food Program. "We are on the ground and discussing with the government to give us access as quickly as possible."
The U.N. has called the Rohingya one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
Myanmar denies the existence of the Rohingya, whose population in Rakhine state is estimated at 1.3 million people. The government says they are all "Bengali," implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and face state-sanctioned discrimination including limited access to education, medical care and other basic services. Myanmar insists all those who have fled by boat in recent months were "Bangladeshi." The government has gone to great lengths to make sure it is not disproven — at least not on its own soil.
Its Navy detained journalists, including the AP, over the weekend, erasing their camera memory cards, when they were trying to confirm the nationalities of the 730 migrants who were hidden away for days near a remote island before being towed into Rakhine state.
They were brought Wednesday to the northern Rakhine district Maungdaw, which is near the border with Bangladesh.
In the last month, at least 47 bodies have washed to shore in Rakhine state, believed to be the corpses of migrants trying to escape trafficking ships, said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which has been monitoring activities in the isolated, northern tip of Rakhine for more than a decade.
Her team saw bodies on beaches and in the mouth of a tiny river along Rakhine's northern tip. Many were believed to be Bangladeshis, dropped off in Myanmar because they felt it was not safe to disembark in their own country during a high alert, she said