Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has been kicked out of Myanmar after two decades of caring for sick people in one of the world’s poorest countries, and the group said Friday that the decision risks tens of thousands of lives.
The government defended its decision, accusing the group of creating tensions and instability in violence-scarred Rakhine state, where it has faced repeated protests for treating members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
“Today for the first time in MSF’s history of operations in the country, HIV/AIDS clinics in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as Yangon division, were closed and patients were unable to receive the treatment they needed,” the group said in a statement.
As one of the nation’s biggest providers of HIV drugs, supplying treatment to 30,000 people, the group said it was “deeply shocked by this unilateral decision.” It also gives life-saving medicine to 3,000 tuberculosis patients. Even small treatment disruptions can lead to drug-resistant strains that are more difficult and expensive to fight.
A confidential document dated Feb. 26 said Myanmar’s presidential office ordered the registration of Doctors Without Borders “to be cancelled.” Presidential spokesman Ye Htut told 7 Day daily on Friday that the contract had been cancelled nationwide.
The spokesman criticized the aid group in the Myanmar Freedom newspaper for hiring “Bengalis,” the term the government uses for Rohingya.
He also accused it of misleading the world about the attack last month in remote northern Rakhine, cut off to almost all foreigners, including journalists and aid workers. The United Nations says more than 40 Rohingya may have died, but the government has vehemently denied allegations that a Buddhist mob rampaged through a village, killing women and children. It says one policeman was killed by Rohingya and no other violence occurred.
Ye Htut was quoted by the independent media outlet, the Democratic Voice of Burma, as saying that Doctors Without Borders claimed it had treated victims with gunshot and slash wounds. But he questioned that, saying the group refused to arrange a meeting between the government and the patients.
“We see that their activities, instead of offering assistance in the region, are fuelling tensions and are detrimental to the rule of law,” he said.
Doctors Without Borders said it treated 22 injured and traumatized Rohingya.
Repeated attempts to reach Ye Htut for comment were unsuccessful Friday.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule. Since then, deep-seated ethnic tensions have swept Rakhine state and several other regions, killing up to 280 people and forcing tens of thousands more to flee their homes. Most of the victims have been Rohingya, chased down by Buddhist-led mobs. The United States and others are worried that democratic reforms made in the last three years are being rolled back.
Since the violence erupted in June 2012, Doctors Without Borders has provided care in northern Rakhine, home to more than 1 million Rohingya, and they are also present in more than a dozen camps for the displaced people elsewhere in the state. For many of the sickest patients, the organization offers the best and sometimes only care, because travelling outside the camps for treatment in local Buddhist-run hospitals can be dangerous and expensive. The aid group has worked to help smooth the referral process for emergency transport from some camps.
Due to increasing threats and intimidation from Rakhine Buddhists, Doctors Without Borders has said its activities have been severely hampered and that it has not received enough government support.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning group said it was unable to provide primary health care to those displaced by the ongoing crisis and in isolated villages and that no other organization operates in the area on the same scale, including providing emergency treatment along with assistance for pregnant women and newborn babies.
Former Maine congressman Tom Andrews, who visited camps in Rakhine state this week, called the government’s decision “outrageous.”
He said the aid group has been “found guilty of telling the truth about attacks against the Rohingya last month. For this, the lives of tens of thousands of desperate people have been put at risk.”
Since 1992, Doctors Without Borders has filled a gap in Myanmar’s neglected and woefully underfunded health sector where tuberculosis is at nearly triple the global rate as multi-drug resistant forms of the disease surge. It remains one of the hardest places in the world to access HIV drugs, which are given to only the sickest people. It was unclear how patients barred from the group’s clinics would continue receiving medicine.
Many of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya – identified by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world – have been living in the country for generations, but the government insists they are here illegally. Almost all have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. Systematic and discriminatory policies limit their freedom of movement, access to health care, right to worship and have children.
Robin McDowell contributed to this report.