The Myanmar government banned Doctors Without Borders (DWB) from operating in one of its most impoverished states, following rumors of ethnic tension.
Most of the disenfranchised Muslim minority reside in the Rakhine State. The government accused the DWB of favoring this minority over its rival group, the Rakhine Buddhists. This tension led to widespread violence, killing 100 people and displacing nearly 140,000 others. The government regards Muslims as “interlopers” from Bangladesh, as opposed to a legitimate minority. President Thein Sein granted DWB permission to resume its work in other regions, but continued its ban on operations in Rakhine.
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut accused DWB of “not following their core principle of neutrality and impartiality.”
Rakhine State government accused the NGO of intentionally fueling tension between the minorities, according to Htut. The perception of bias led to large-scale protests in the state capital against DWB.
The organization responded to these accusations in a statement, asserting “services are provided based on medical need only, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or any other factor.”
This January, DWB released a statement contradicting the government on an alleged massacre in Rakhine. This reportedly “triggered” the ban on its operations in the region. The United Nations report the death of more than 40 Rohingya Muslims, and DWB confirmed treating 22 victims. Wounds occurred at the hands of state security forces, yet the government denounced these claims, reporting the death of one police officer.
Following the ban, the Ministry of Health plans to provide health services for the “whole community.” Myanmar President Thein Sein also dispatched the emergency response workers and ambulances to the region, replacing the DWB clinics.
These services cannot match those provided by the NGO. The national health services rank “among the most rudimentary in Asia,” according to the New York Times. The government also confines Muslims to their villages, preventing the group from receiving medical care.
Banning DWB deprives nearly 750,000 people of proper healthcare.
The NGO acted as the largest provider in northern Rakhine, a region largely populated with Muslim Rohingya. It managed five permanent clinics as well as 30 mobile units. Within these clinics, workers operated an intensive feeding center for undernourished children. Medical professionals report diagnosing more than 20 percent with acute malnourishment.
The government ban forced these centers to close, following the removal of DWB.
The organization also served those living in displaced camps outside the state capital, Sittwe. Tuberculosis, a disease endemic to Muslim neighborhood Aung Mingla, threatens the health of displaced Muslims. HIV and malaria also threaten resident health. With limited medical attention, the supplies of medicine continue to dwindle.
The government prevents these patients from leaving the area, surrounding the camp with “barbed-wire security posts and police officers.”
As head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar, Mark Cutts expresses concern for the present healthcare shortage. Rather than antagonizing the government, though, the U.N. has chosen “quiet diplomacy.”
For the time, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations can provide care. Myanmar deputy health director Dr. Soe Lwin Nyein plans to accept tuberculosis and HIV medication from DWB. These concessions help patients in the region receive more than the minimum government care, yet negotiations over the medicine distribution appear ongoing.
Cutts plans to coordinate with the government and reinstate DWB “as soon as possible,” protecting the minority from disease. As ethnic tension continues to incite violence, the government banned professionals in the best position to serve its people.
– Ellery Spahr