RANGOON — Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called for dialogue with local residents in Sittwe protesting the aid group’s presence in Arakan State, a suggestion that was dismissed by one of the protest leaders on Wednesday as demonstrations against the international NGO entered their fourth day.
MSF Myanmar Deputy Head of Mission Simon Tyler, who is based in Sittwe and manages the medical aid group’s Arakan State program, said in an email that MSF was “very concerned” by the protests and “threats of further action by some members of the Rakhine [Arakanese] community.”
“We are always willing to engage in reasonable dialogue with local residents, such as our recent participation in a meeting in Mrauk U attended by representatives of the local Rakhine community; township, district and state authorities; diplomatic representatives from the EU and humanitarian organizations, including MSF,” Tyler said. “We call on the authorities to facilitate more dialogue of this nature and to be more proactive in informing local residents about the activities of humanitarian organizations.
“MSF also calls upon the protest leaders to engage in dialogue with MSF and the authorities on their complaints. MSF has no political agenda whatsoever and does not take sides in any situation or conflict anywhere in the world.”
Some members of the local Arakanese Buddhist population in Sittwe, the Arakan State capital, accuse MSF of providing preferential treatment to the region’s minority Rohingya Muslims. The latest protests were sparked by a claim that MSF made last month, when the aid group said it had treated 22 patients for injuries indicative of violence in the aftermath of an alleged massacre of dozens of Muslims.
The MSF claim followed initial reports of an incident of mass violence against Muslims in Maungdaw Township’s Du Chee Yar Tan village on Jan. 13. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Jan. 23 that she had received “credible information” that at least 40 Muslims were killed in Du Chee Yar Tan.
The government has vehemently denied any massacre took place.
The protest in Sittwe, which entered its fourth day on Wednesday, is being led by Nyo Aye, a female Arakanese rights activist who rejected Tyler’s call for dialogue.
“There is no reason to have a meeting and negotiation with MSF. They should have met us when we first protested if they did indeed wish to meet,” she said on Wednesday, referring to protests in early February that also demanded the expulsion of MSF from Arakan State.
“At the moment, we are only waiting to hear whether President Thein Sein will listen to our people’s voices or not,” she said.
Khin Maung Gyi, a senior member of the recently formed Arakan National Party, told The Irrawaddy that given high tensions in the region, a dialogue between MSF and Arakanese residents would not be possible at present.
“I found here [Sittwe] tensions are high. The viewpoint of our local people is that they do not want to have a meeting with MSF and they only want them ousted from our state because they say that MSF gave incorrect information about treating 22 patients from Du Chee Yar Ta,” said Khin Maung Gyi.
He said medical group should offer evidence in support of its claim to have treated the 22 villagers.
“In my view, MSF did not give strong evidence and they did not communicate a very clear message about why they had treated the patients. This is why our local people are very disappointed,” Khin Maung Gyi said.
MSF on Wednesday stood by its original claim.
“MSF has never released any incorrect information about the incident. We never made any statement regarding deaths resulting from the Maungtaw Du Char Yar Tan Village. MSF can confirm that our staff treated 22 patients in the area near Du Char Yar Tan village from a variety of violence-related injuries in the days after January 14,” Tyler said.
“MSF cannot and has never confirmed any fatalities from the patients we treated. MSF shared the same information with Rakhine State health authorities as [well as] the media. MSF did not issue a press release on the incident, we simply replied with the truth when asked by journalists whether we had treated any patients in the area.”
Meanwhile, local protesters have sent a letter to Thein Sein, urging the president to cancel the government’s Memorandum of Understanding with MSF, w. The letter cites MSF’s alleged “bias” toward Muslims in its Arakan State operations.
Tensions between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslims first led to bloodshed in June 2012, and have flared periodically in Arakan State and other parts of Burma since. More than 200 people have been killed and about 140,000 displaced, with Muslims comprising the majority of the victims.
Tyler called on the government to tackle the region’s increasingly strained inter-religious relations.
“The medical humanitarian assistance MSF provides cannot solve these tensions, only local and national political leaders have the power to bring an end to the problems in Rakhine. This is not the role of an organization such as MSF, but the responsibility of community leaders and the government,” he said.
“As long as the current situation continues, MSF remains committed to alleviating the humanitarian medical needs that exists in Rakhine, regardless of ethnicity, religion, HIV status or any other factor.”