Medical Aid to Arakan State Rohingya Blocked, MSF Says

By Lawi Weng 7 February 2013

RANGOON — A medical aid group says its access to camps with tens of thousands of Muslims who fled the inter-communal violence in Arakan State, is being blocked by government forces and local leaders. As a result, the displaced are suffering and at times dying from preventable diseases.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) General Director Arjan Hehenkamp told a press conference on Thursday that Muslim groups were being confined to sites in muddy rice fields or narrow strips of land without access to health care, clean water or sanitation.

Government security forces restrict MSF visits and limit the movement of Muslim patients, even if they are critically ill, Hehenkamp said, adding that local Arakanese were reluctant to cooperate with MSF due to the authorities’ attitude, or because they resent efforts to help the Muslim camps.

“If we transport a sick Muslim patient to Sittwe Hospital, it often happened that the captains of the boats did not dare to take the patient,” he said.

MSF (also known as Doctors without Borders) is only is allowed to visit camps just once a week and its staff cannot stay overnight. As a result, common ailments like skin infections, diarrhea, coughing, worms and diarrhea go untreated, Hehenkamp said, adding that the situation severely impacts the villagers’ health, especially among children.

“The morning we arrived at a camp, a child who was one- and half-year old had died from a common cold. This disease is preventable, but it can be a death sentence at these camps,” he said.

Since June 2012, Arakan State in west Burma has been the scene of repeated outbreaks of inter-communal violence between Arakanese Buddhist groups and local Muslims, who are called Rohingya. Scores of people have been killed, villages have been burned down, and 110,000 people have fled their homes. The majority of the displaced are Rohingya.

This group is not recognized as ethnic minority by the Burmese government and local Arakanese authorities are accused by international rights groups of being complicit in the violence against the Rohingya, who are referred to locally as “Bengalis.”

MSF said the main challenge to its support operations was the hostility the group encountered from local Arakanese community, which objected to MSF operations for Muslims in northern and eastern Arakan State.

“In pamphlets, letters and Facebook postings, [MSF] and others have been repeatedly accused of having a pro-Rohingya bias, by some members of the [Arakanese] community. It is this intimidation, rather than formal permission for access, that is the primary challenge,” MSF said in a release.

Its General Director made a direct appeal to the national government and local state leaders to publicly support the group’s aid work.

“I would like to ask the government and the community in Arakan State, to stand up and support our medical mission, affirming this is a medical mission that is neutral and works for every community,” Hehenkamp said.

Ye Htut, a spokesperson for Burmese President Thein Sein, said he had not yet read MSF’s remarks and could therefore not comment on the group’s appeal.

Several months ago, MSF also complained of being hindered by local Arakanese community members and government security forces, and in June MSF and UN staff were even briefly detained by security forces.

An MSF press release warned that in some camps rapid screenings had found “alarming numbers of severely malnourished children.” It also quoted several Muslim villagers, who described the hardships they faced.

“We are very worried about our women; we have more than 200 pregnant women in our camp. For their delivery they cannot go to a health center and they will have to deliver here… in the mud without a doctor,” said a Muslim man living in a camp in Pauktaw Township.