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Myanmar Flip-Flops on Foreign Medical Aid

By Danny Gold
March 4, 2014

Amid an international uproar, the government of Myanmar has partially reversed its decision to expel Médecins Sans Frontières — the medical humanitarian NGO also known as Doctors Without Borders.

MSF-Holland, which oversees the organization's work in Myanmar, received a written order from the government on Thursday telling it to halt all of its activities. The order forced the closing of medical clinics throughout the country that were operated by MSF, affecting some 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients and more than 3,000 tuberculosis patients.

Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, told the local Irrawaddy news service that the government decided to expel MSF-Holland because it had violated a “memorandum of understanding” with the government. He accused them of using more foreign staff than permitted, failing to stay impartial, and disobeying the government by creating a medical care clinic for newborns.

On Saturday, MSF announced that Myanmar's government has allowed it to resume operations at clinics in the Yangon region as well as in the embattled states of Shan and Kachin, where ethnic insurgencies have waged a bitter struggle for autonomy. Operations are still on hold in Rakhine state, however, where tensions run high between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and a persecuted minority of Rohingya Muslims. Because of the government's neglect of the Rohingya, MSF is their primary healthcare provider.

“While we are encouraged by this and will resume these activities for now, MSF remains extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of vulnerable people in Rakhine state who currently face a humanitarian medical crisis,” the organization said in a statement.

The Rohingya number some 800,000 within Rakhine state, but are regarded as a stateless and undocumented ethnic minority in Myanmar. (In his remarks to the press, Ye Htut accused MSF of showing special favor to the “Bengalis,” a derogatory reference to the Rohingya that implies that they are illegal immigrants who don’t belong.) They have suffered discrimination and violent attacks over the past two years that have seen hundreds killed and over 140,000 displaced, many to squalid refugee camps. Myanmar authorities have been accused of human rights abuses in their targeting of the Rohingya.

A recent report by Fortify Rights, a human rights organization, uses leaked internal documents to highlight the government's complicity in the persecution of the Rohingya, and accuses it of crimes against humanity.

Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, told VICE News that the move was calculated and typical of how the Myanmar government gets away with continued rights abuses. “It’s something they’ve done over and over again: they will take two steps back, in this case banning MSF from operating all over the country, and then take one step forward,” he said. “Then you see the international community saying this is a positive step, and we still end up taking one step back.”

Farmaner, like many critics of the government, sees the closing of the Rakhine operations as direct retaliation for MSF reporting that it treated victims of a massacre this past January in Du Chee Yar Tan village — the UN believes that at least 48 Rohingya were killed over the course of two attacks there. The government denies the massacre took place.

“That’s the thing that has antagonized the government of Burma,” said Farmaner. He added that the closing is meant to deny access to those who would report on human rights abuses in Rakhine state, which is incredibly worrying. Farmaner criticized the international community, primarily the United Kingdom, for not speaking out.

MSF finds itself in a difficult position as it resumes its work in the country. NGO and human rights groups have faced incredible pressure from the authorities, and many have had their access restricted. The Myanmar government has criticized the international community and rejected what it maintains is a one-sided defense of the Rohingya. A government official named Hmuu Zaw has expressed his displeasure on Twitter for what he regards as the international community’s unwelcome interference:

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