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Southeast Asia Nations To Meet To Discuss Migrant Crisis


Next, we're going to talk about the refugee crisis in two parts of the world, and we begin in Southeast Asia. Let's remember about a month ago, Thailand began cracking down on human trafficking. That prompted many traffickers to abandon their human cargo on boats at sea. These migrants are mainly members of Myanmar's Muslim minority, the Rohingya community, and also economic migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Several thousand of these migrants remain at sea. Several thousand others have now landed on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Their future is the subject of a meeting taking place tomorrow in Bangkok that involves representatives from nearly two dozen nations and also the United Nations. Joining me on the line is reporter Michael Sullivan, who's been covering this story for NPR. Michael, good morning.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what exactly is this meeting, and what do people there hope to accomplish tomorrow?

SULLIVAN: Well, Thailand has called this meeting to try to figure out a way to stop this exodus from Myanmar's Rakhine State. And it's invited the neighbors to attend and anyone else with a stake. So the U.N. will be there and the U.S., which has offered to help with the search effort for those still at sea. And even Myanmar has agreed to attend, though it won't abide by the term Rohingya being used at the conference. It doesn't acknowledge that the Rohingya exist, even though there's more than a million of them in western Myanmar and have been there for centuries. Myanmar continues to insist that these people are Bengalis, meaning from Bangladesh. And they're not considered citizens. They're stateless people. And the way they get treated is wretched, and that's why they get on these boats in the first place. So there's going to be some efforts to get Myanmar to try to address this issue at the conference because human rights groups and some governments, like the U.S. government, say this is key. Myanmar is the root of the problem, and it has to take steps to address it.

GREENE: OK. Stopping the problem at its source, putting pressure on Myanmar - is Myanmar likely to listen?

SULLIVAN: Good luck with that. I mean, not unless the neighbors gang up on Myanmar. And that's not likely to happen because the first rule of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is non-interference in other country's internal affairs. But that's just it, David, because this isn't internal anymore. It's affecting everyone. And we've seen some impatience with Myanmar from the neighbors recently. Malaysia, last week, basically told Myanmar to get its house in order. They're tired of taking care of these refugees. They've got about 40,000 of them already, and they don't want anymore. And if Malaysia and Thailand and Indonesia got together and really leaned on Myanmar, we might see some action, but that's a big if.

GREENE: And, well, now, Michael, your reporting has now taken you to another Southeast Asian country - a poor one we should say - Cambodia. Why are you there?

SULLIVAN: I'm waiting for some refugees to arrive here, too, David. Cambodia has agreed to take a whole bunch of migrants who were trying to reach Australia but were caught and detained offshore. Australia is now outsourcing those refugees to Cambodia for a pile of cash. Human rights groups are crying foul, but the arrival of the first four is imminent, and one of them is a Muslim minority Rohingya from western Myanmar.

GREENE: All right, that's Michael Sullivan speaking to us from the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.