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Myanmar: Muslim hospital for poor thrives despite odds

YANGON, MYANMAR – APRIL 8: A woman sleeps with her baby at Yangon’s Muslim Free Hospital in Yangon, Myanmar on April 8, 2016. After years of coups, politicking and demonstrations, Yangon's Turkey-sponsored Muslim Free Hospital's latest challenge is religious discrimination. (Aung Naing Soe - Anadolu Agency)

By Kyaw Ye Lynn
April 12, 2016

After years of coups, politicking and demonstrations, Yangon's Turkey-sponsored Muslim Free Hospital's latest challenge is religious discrimination

YANGON, Myanmar -- Since its humble beginnings in 1937 as a small eye clinic catering for the poor, Yangon's Muslim Free Hospital has blossomed into a modern 130-bed medical center.

The now five storey building sits in the center of Myanmar's commercial capital, with much of its funding provided from Zakat -- the Muslim practice of donating around 10 percent of income -- collected at local mosques, while the beds were funded from overseas.

“International aid organizations have also provided assistance," the clinic's Sec. Gen. Abdul Rahman Yacoob Manjra underlined in an interview with Anadolu Agency at the hospital Thursday.

He casually waves a hand towards the inpatient ward.

“All of the 130-plus beds were donated by the Turkish government and people," he says.

In the 75 years since the inception of the hospital -- Muslim Free Hospital & Medical Relife (Relief) Society is its full name -- Myanmar has dramatically changed.

Long considered a pariah state under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011, on April 1, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy assumed power after a landslide Nov. 8 election victory.

But while the hospital has maintained its original mission -- "free healthcare for everyone regardless of race and religion” -- others have moved to sew division, the country become more and more ethnically divided on the back of anti-Muslim sentiment from a group of nationalist monks.

Manjra says it is not just the political landscape that has changed; the economy has also blossomed thanks to a relaxing of sanctions as the army slowly made moves to forego complete control

“It was very difficult and extremely expensive to cure eye diseases when we first opened," the 81-year-old Muslim says from a small office full of donated materials and medicines in the hospital’s main building in Mahabandoola Park Street.

The large red brick hospital comprises three buildings; the main structure on Mahabandoola and two small buildings on 35th Street, all connected by overhead bridges.

"People from all across the country, even Buddhist monks, come here," he adds.

For three days a week, there is barely any free space at the hospital, with its front steps, stairwells and inpatient wards thronged with hundreds of people awaiting the treatment that would usually be beyond their reach due to the country's poorly funded healthcare system.

Departments specializing in surgery, obstetrics, gynaecology, eyes and psychiatry see around 300 outpatients a day, with treatments free to those deemed too poor to contribute, while a small fee is charged to those able to pay.

Manjra says he started to work for the hospital 52 years ago, observing the country's struggle for independence from its windows, and the long struggle to democracy.

The hospital almost ceased operation under military strongman Ne Win, who ruled the country for more than two decades following a military coup in 1962.

Under Ne Win's drastic reform program -- ''the Burmese Way to Socialism'' -- trade and industry was nationalized and Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs expelled.

Rice exports -- a key segment of the country's once-prosperous economy -- lagged, and black marketeers flourished.

By 1968, widespread corruption had settled in, and with it the resentment of government economic policies that helped lead to the demonstrations of 1988.

“We faced a serious shortage of all goods," Manjra says. "We had to pay a high price for medicines on the black market.”

He says that against such a complicated political backdrop, the hospital was determined to remain outside of politics, however in some instances the ill had nowhere else to go.

Mya Aye, a student leader in the 88 Uprising – the biggest mass demonstration against then Than Shwe's military junta -- tells Anadolu Agency that some people often went to the Muslim Free Hospital, as the junta pressured public and private hospitals not to accept them.

“Some political prisoners relied on it as no one else dared cure them,” the 50-year-old Muslim told Anadolu Agency, adding that the doctors sometimes secretly cured pro-democracy student activists.

"We were lucky," says Manjra. "No one forced us to stop operations at any time, [probably] because everyone knew that we had no bias and did not discriminate against anyone."

Since former President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, healthcare spending has been on the rise.

The government’s promotion of healthcare services has reportedly reduced patient’s medical expenses by half, with the number receiving treatment dramatically increasing, according to media reports and government data.

Manjra underlines that although Muslim Free Hospital is as busy as ever, there's been a change in the patients it treats.

According to hospital data, it received a total of 70282 outpatients last year, 33163 of whom were Muslim and 28469 Buddhist.

“We used to receive more Buddhist patients than Muslims,” says Manjra. “May be its because public hospitals have become more reliable, or perhaps it because of something else.”

Manjira refuses to directly comment on the growth in anti-Muslim sentiment in the predominantly Buddhist country, but admits that the decline in Buddhist patients started months after communal violence hit the country in late 2012.

“We've seen a decline since the conflict in Meikhtila,” he says.

In mid-2012, communal violence broke out in western Rakhine state between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists and then spread to other parts of the country such as the central town of Meikhtila, the second largest town in Mandalay.

As anti-Muslim sentiment grew, Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha urged followers to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses.

Manjra pauses for thought when asked whether it affected the hospital

“We try not to think of it; we just focus on our work,” he eventually says.

* The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) is a government department of Turkey's Prime Minister. It is responsible for the organization of the bulk of Turkey's official development assistance to developing countries.

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