MSF Returns to Arakan Amid Scrutiny

By Yen Saning 22 January 2015

RANGOON — The quiet resumption of limited health services in western Burma has attracted the scrupulous gaze of local authorities and community leaders, who cautioned that they will be “watching” to ensure that aid organizations remain within the bounds of certain activities.

Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland (MSF) said on Tuesday that they had begun their re-entry into the restive Arakan State in mid-December, 10 months after the Burmese government banned them from the area when the group made statements that it had treated people it believed were injured during sectarian clashes.

“We will be watching what they are doing,” Win Myaing, a spokesperson for the Arakan State Government, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “If their purpose is to provide medical assistance, then do it. Someone who does medical assistance cannot plant trees…They cannot do any other tasks.”

Arakan State has suffered several bouts of riots between its majority Arakanese Buddhist and minority Muslim populations since 2012. International aid organizations in the state have been accused of bias in delivering services, as many of them work primarily with communities displaced by the violence.

The vast majority of those displaced were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who are denied legal status and stripped of basic rights by a controversial citizenship law. Nearly 140,000 of Burma’s estimated 1.1 million Rohingya are still living in squalid camps where they are denied mobility and lack basic services such as education and health care.

Many locals claim that aid workers are unfairly bent toward Muslims, and some officials have insinuated that they have spread “false news” among both the local and international communities. Humanitarian aid groups have denied accusations of bias and misinformation.

Arakanese community leader Khin Maung Gyi, a member of the state’s dominant Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told The Irrawaddy that the community will remain vigilant to prevent aid workers from “giving untrue news” to the international community. He added that it is the government’s responsibility to “control them from saying such things.”

Despite tension and added scrutiny, some members of the community welcomed the return of MSF, which is one of the state’s main providers of HIV treatment, primary health care and other life-saving assistance.

“It’s good that people will get medical assistance, because people were dying of causes that should have been treatable,” said Kyaw Min, a Rohingya politician and chairman of the Rangoon-based Democracy and Human Rights Party, echoing widely-held concerns that the absence of aid led to preventable deaths.

Since December 17, 2014, MSF has resumed limited services in four townships: Maungdaw; Buthidaung; Sittwe; and Pauktaw. A spokeswoman for MSF told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the group has since carried out more than 3,480 outpatient consultations and about 550 consultations with pregnant women. MSF has also assisted Burma’s Ministry of Health with the provision of a speedboat to enable hospital referrals in various parts of the state.

The spokeswoman said that while the group is not operating at its former capacity, “we take this new situation as an opportunity to identify areas of urgent health need and then implement medical activities, when appropriate in support of the Ministry of Health, to meet those needs.”

Full details about the extent of permitted activities have not been disclosed, but community leaders said that they will be monitoring their activities closely for signs of misconduct. Nyo Aye, an Arakanese women’s rights activist who has been a vocal participant in several protests against foreign aid organizations and international observers such as the US human rights envoy, Yanghee Lee, told The Irrawaddy that while the group does not object to the return of MSF, “we are watching what they do.”

Despite the reception from some outspoken members of the Arakanese community, the MSF spokeswoman said that the state government and the Ministry of Health have offered their “continued support” for the organization, stating that “our services are well received by the communities we serve.”