MSF Urges Burma to Allow It to Resume Work as Health Crisis Worsens

By Paul Mooney 16 August 2014

RANGOON — An international medical group has urged the Burmese government to follow through on a commitment to let it resume work in one of the poorest parts of the country, warning that healthcare there has seriously deteriorated since it was expelled.

The government ordered the group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) out of the western state of Arakan in February after the group said it had treated people it believed were victims of sectarian violence.

The government denied that an attack had taken place and it has also accused MSF of being biased in favor of members of the minority Muslim community.

The withdrawal of the agency, which had operated in the area for more than 20 years, left some half-a-million Rohingya Muslims without access to reliable medical care.

“What has become clearer since the expulsion is that the situation has gotten more grievous by the day,” said Reshma Adatia, operational adviser to MSF-Holland on Burma.

The government announced on July 23 that MSF would be allowed to return to Arakan State. However, MSF says it has had no official word from the government since the announcement was made.

Adatia said the decision to allow MSF to resume work “has not been translated into how and when we can return to the Rakhine [Arakan] State and conduct our medical activities.”

Arakan State has a long history of discrimination against the Muslim Rohingya community. Aid groups have drawn the ire of some Arakanese Buddhists who accuse them of favoring the Rohingya, a group that makes up the vast majority of victims of recent outbreaks of sectarian violence.

Humanitarian groups reject accusations of bias towards Muslims and many workers say they have been threatened and intimidated.

A spokesman for Arakan State, Win Myaing, denied any knowledge of a decision to let MSF resume work there.

Than Tun, a Buddhist leader and a member of an Emergency Coordination Committee set up in March to monitor the work of international aid groups, said the decision was not supported by the people of Arakan State.

Some aid workers say the announcement that MSF would be allowed to resume its work had more to do with politics than resolving the humanitarian crisis.

The announcement came as Yanghee Lee, the new UN human rights envoy to Burma, visited the country, including the Arakan area. US Secretary of State John Kerry attended a regional conference in the capital, Naypyidaw, on Aug. 9-10.

The Burmese government is in a tight spot. Concessions towards the Rohingyas could prove unpopular among the general public, but perceived ill-treatment risks angering Western countries that have eased sanctions in response to human rights reforms.

On July 26, Zaw Htay, head of the president’s office, posted a photo on his social media feeds showing a previous protest against MSF, and warned that people in Arakan State were organizing to strike against the regional government for inviting MSF to return.