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US Military Planes Search for Boat People in SE Asia

FILE - An abandoned boat which carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand is found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, Indonesia's Aceh Province.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok says the U.S. military has begun conducting maritime surveillance flights off the west coast of Malaysia, supporting efforts to search for thousands of migrants believed stranded at sea on rickety wooden boats.

"In consultation with governments in the region, the U.S. on May 24 began conducting maritime surveillance flights off the west coast of Malaysia," said embassy spokeswoman Melissa Sweeney in a statement sent via e-mail to VOA News.

"The flights are consistent with our offer to assist governments in the region to improve their understanding of the situation in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal."

In the first series of surveillance missions, the U.S. Pacific Command directed a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft, operating out of Subang, Malaysia, to fly over the Andaman Sea and adjacent waters, searching for vessels, a Pentagon official told VOA. Additional flights may occur as necessary, the official said.

U.S. officials are continuing "to consult with governments in the region regarding their needs and the best ways the U.S. can support them providing humanitarian assistance for vulnerable migrants in the region," the embassy statement added.

Stranded migrants

After Thailand launched a crackdown this month on way stations for migrants along the border with Malaysia, some smugglers abandoned their boats at sea, leaving people on rickety wooden ships to fend for themselves with little or no food and water.

Immigrant Crisis in Southeast Asia, Royhingya peoples from Burma and Bangladesh
Immigrant Crisis in Southeast Asia, Royhingya peoples from Burma and Bangladesh

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand had rebuffed the overcrowded vessels seeking refuge. Facing international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia last week announced they would temporarily allow the boat people to land so they could be processed for repatriation or resettlement elsewhere.

The passengers are Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bangladeshis.

Several thousand migrants have been rescued off Indonesia and Malaysia or have swum ashore this month. Rights group believes thousands more could still be at sea.

On Friday, officials from Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the United States and other countries will meet in Bangkok to discuss the continuing humanitarian crisis. The U.S. delegation will be led by Anne Richard, assistant secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Mass graves

Malaysian authorities on Tuesday were exhuming bodies at 139 grave sites in the northern part of the country.

Malaysian officials say 28 camps were found between May 11 and 23 in hard-to-reach mountainous jungle areas, with the largest one capable of holding up to 300 people.

Authorities in Thailand, two weeks ago, found similar traffickers' camps and mass graves.

Malaysia and Thai authorities have faced accusations from rights groups that they had turned a blind eye to the problem and that there was evidence of complicity by corrupt officials.

"Clearly, this area has been an enclave for these ransom-for-release camps," Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, Philip Robertson, told VOA. "And I don't believe for a second that that could take place without connivance, at some level, by the authorities."

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, largely does not recognize the Rohingya, who are Muslims, as citizens. The Rohingya have faced intense discrimination in Myanmar; 140,000 have been displaced since mid-2012 by riots in Rakhine state.

WATCH: Related video report

Thailand Feeds Migrants, Sends Them Back Out to Sea
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