Arakan Govt Softens Stance Toward MSF

By Lawi Weng 24 July 2014

RANGOON — The Arakan State government and Burma’s Ministry of Health have encouraged international humanitarian organizations—including the previously maligned Medecins Sans Frontieres—to work in the troubled state, where 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in increasingly dire conditions after interreligious violence broke out more than two years ago.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement printed in state media on Thursday that the assistance of international organizations would contribute to the stability and development of Arakan State.

The Arakan State government said in the statement that “our government would like to invite all organizations, as well as other UN agencies and including MSF, to participate in implementing the Rakhine Action Plan effectively at Union and state levels,” referring to a recently issued plan that covers development in the health and education sectors of Burma’s second-poorest state.

The statements mark a notable improvement in at least the public stance of state and Union-level officials toward MSF, which faced a barrage of government criticism earlier this year and has been barred from operating in Arakan State.

Members of Arakan State’s Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) met with diplomats, UN agencies, international nongovernmental organizations, state government officials, civil society organizations and representatives from the Myanmar Peace Center in late June. The meeting addressed how to improve humanitarian aid delivery and relief efforts, with the parties also agreeing to put an emphasis on development issues impacting the state.

The ECC, comprised of government officials and civil society leaders, was set up in March to oversee aid operations in the state.

Win Myaing, the Arakan State government spokesman, said he had not read the statement yet and did not know anything about it, declining to provide comment on those grounds.

Than Tun, who is a member of the ECC and a community leader in Sittwe, said MSF would need to win the hearts and minds of the state’s majority ethnic Arakanese population if it wanted to resume operations there.

“Arakan people did not like MSF. To let it come back, this depends only on our people,” he said, adding that the Arakanese would welcome any organizations working in the region, but only if they provided humanitarian aid in an impartial way.

“There will be no problems coming here if they have transparency and no bias in offering aid. This depends on those organizations,” Than Tun said.

Accusations of bias have hounded MSF, which maintains that it provides its services based solely on medical need in a state where the vast majority of the displaced populations are Rohingya Muslims.

The Burmese government kicked MSF out of Arakan State in February after the aid group said it had treated patients wounded in a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Maungdaw Township’s Du Chee Yar Tan village.

The government has denied that any attack took place.

After MSF’s aid operations in the state ceased, the Ministry of Health said it had stepped up its delivery of medical services, but frequent reports since then of the deteriorating health situation in the IDP camps suggest the government’s efforts have failed to plug the hole left by the MSF pull out.

In an email to The Irrawaddy, MSF responded positively to the government’s apparently softened stance toward the organization.

“MSF welcomes the Myanmar Government’s announcement today that the organization will be invited to resume medical humanitarian operations in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” the group said. “We look forward to continuing constructive discussions with the Ministry of Health regarding how MSF can support the ministry in the immediate expansion of life-saving medical activities for the people of Rakhine currently facing a humanitarian crisis.”

Despite Thursday’s state media missive, MSF remains officially banned from operating in the state.