US waits Thai approval for flights to locate boat people
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is waiting for Thailand to allow U.S. surveillance flights through Thai airspace to help locate stranded boat people in Southeast Asian seas, the State Department said Thursday.
U.S. Navy flights, meanwhile, are operating daily out of Subang, Malaysia, and the information is being shared with regional partners, the department said.
The flights are intended to assist in the rescue of Rohingya Muslims, who have fled persecution in Myanmar, and impoverished Bangladeshis. In the past month, more than 3,000 desperate people have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and while arrivals have slowed, others are still feared stuck at sea.
After initial reluctance to help the migrants, countries in the region facing international criticism have stepped up their help. Thailand will on Friday host an international conference on addressing the humanitarian crisis. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, the top U.S. official on refugee issues, will attend.
But the Thai reticence in allowing U.S. flights hints at fraying in traditionally strong diplomatic and military ties between the treaty allies. Relations have been strained since a military coup a year ago that prompted the U.S. to suspend military aid. Some Thais have also been irked at Washington’s call for countries to help the stateless Rohingya.
The U.S. military has in the past used the Thai air base at U-Tapao — a major U.S. base during the Vietnam War — for humanitarian missions in the region, including 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The department said it has officially requested Thai authorization to conduct the surveillance flights to assist in locating and marking the positions of migrant vessels. It says it has been in daily contact with the Thai government about the U.S. requests and continues to discuss options for cooperation.
Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to provide the migrants with one-year shelter. Thailand has offered “humanitarian help” but not shelter, saying it already hosts more than 100,000 refugees, mostly from Myanmar’s other ethnic groups.
The Thai Embassy in Washington said Thursday that the U.S. has been informed that its cooperation on surveillance flights would be welcome, but under Thailand’s operational control. The Thai military has set up an operation center to conduct air and sea surveillance and provide assistance to migrants.
“I wish to emphasize that Thailand has not yet rejected the request. It’s a good request but we have to take national security into consideration,” Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapagorn was quoted as saying by The Nation, a Thai daily.
The U.S. is also offering to contribute funds to an international appeal for emergency aid, and to consider taking some of the refugees.
U.S.-based advocacy group, United to End Genocide, called on participants at Friday’s meeting in Bangkok to address what it described as the threat of genocide against Rohingya families who have faced sectarian attacks and persecution, forcing them to flee western Myanmar.