Malaysia’s prime minister said on Saturday he would seek help from Myanmar to address the unfolding “humanitarian catastrophe” involving a wave of people fleeing on boats to Southeast Asia, thousands of whom are ethnic Rohingya escaping oppression in the mainly Buddhist country.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have come under increasing pressure to rescue starving and helpless Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants after triggering outrage by turning them back out to sea with scarce food and nowhere to go.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said “we are liaising with the Myanmar government to get their response,” according to Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency.

“I hope they will give a positive response as the refugees were due to internal problems that we cannot interfere with, but we want to do something before it gets worse,” he said.

Myanmar’s cooperation is deemed vital to solving Southeast Asia’s biggest influx of migrants since the end of the Vietnam War.

But its government — which denies the Muslim Rohingya citizenship — has already rejected a Thai call for a regional summit on the issue on May 29, saying it was not their problem.

The UN refugee agency has reported a surge in departures from Bay of Bengal ports in recent months.

Activists say 8,000 people may be adrift on overcrowded vessels, with starvation and disease claiming lives, after a Thai crackdown crimped busy routes and spurred people-smugglers to abandon men, women and children at sea.

‘Throwing people overboard’

In one of the grimmest episodes yet, survivors of a boat that sank off the east coast of Sumatra island — among roughly 900 people rescued off Indonesia on Friday — described a bloody struggle for survival between Bangladeshis and Rohingya on board.

“They were killing each other, throwing people overboard,” said Sunarya, police chief of the city of Langsa near where they were rescued.

The packed boat had set off two months ago but was deserted this week by captain and crew, survivors said.

It was then turned away, first by Indonesia and then Malaysia, as the Rohingya won an onboard fight for the remaining food, said Bangladeshi survivor Muhammad Koyes.

“When we asked for food, they beat us. The Bangladeshis were very weak, so we could not fight back,” he said.

Another survivor, Absaruddin, gave harrowing details of being kidnapped in the Bangladeshi town of Teknaf by traffickers determined to fill the boat with their lucrative human cargo.

A group of men pounced on the 14-year-old and three of his teenage friends while they were having breakfast.

“They beat us, tied us up and took us onto the ship,” he told AFP, after he was rescued of Aceh.

“Before we could do anything we were at sea with hundreds of Bangladeshis and Rohingya.”

Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Sumatra’s Aceh province after managing to get ashore in recent days, while more than 1,100 had reached Malaysia.

Fixing and refuelling

About 100 made it to a southern Thai island late Thursday, while a boat found by journalists in waters further south earlier that day drifted between Malaysia and Thailand’s maritime boundary Saturday, authorities said.

Thai Navy Lieutenant Commander Weerapong Nakprasit told reporters Thailand towed the wooden boat crammed with Rohingya migrants into Thai waters Saturday afternoon upon liaising with the Malaysian coast guard, fixing and refuelling the engine for a second time.

“We are not pushing them out, we are helping them,” he said, echoing earlier official comments that the migrants did not want to enter the kingdom amid calls by rights groups to allow desperate passengers to disembark.

He added that the navy later “escorted” the vessel westwards towards international waters.

The appalling scenes have triggered global calls, including by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Washington, for Southeast Asia to open its ports to migrants.

The US State Department said John Kerry phoned his Thai counterpart “to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for them”.

The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.

But Rohingya have fled western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the thousands — bound largely for Malaysia — in recent years to escape sectarian violence and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Each spring, boats stream out of the Bay of Bengal for Southeast Asia, trying to beat seasonal monsoon storms. Hundreds die every year, according to the UN refugee agency.

The flow has surged recently as smugglers dupe migrants by waiving payment for passage, according to Rohingya leaders in a refugee camp near Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe.

Instead, they later demand ransoms from migrants’ families once at sea, or ashore in Thailand or Malaysia. The trend has contributed to boats being kept at sea for weeks. — Agence France-Presse

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