RANGOON — The government has suspended all operations of Médicine Sans Frontièrs (MSF) in Burma following disagreements over the implementation of aid programs in Arakan State, where the group offered vital medical aid to Rohingya Muslims.
MSF said in a statement Friday night that it was “deeply shocked by this unilateral decision and extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of patients currently under our care across the country.”
The President’s Office spokesman Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy earlier on Friday that MSF Holland’s projects in Arakan State had violated certain conditions of its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government.
He said the alleged violations had led to a government decision to refrain from renewing the current MoU, which had expired last year.
On Friday afternoon, it seemed that discussions were still ongoing on whether or not MSF operations in other regions could continue, but a MSF statement released around 8 pm said all medical aid operations had come to an end.
“Today, for the first time in MSF’s history of operations in the country, HIV/AIDS clinics in [Arakan], Shan and Kachin states, as well as [Rangoon] division, were closed and patients were unable to receive the treatment they needed,” MSF said.
“TB patients were unable to receive their life-saving medicine, including drug-resistant TB patients. This decision by the Union Government will have a devastating impact on the 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients and more than 3,000 TB patients we are currently treating in Myanmar.”
“In [Arakan] state, MSF was unable to provide primary health care to the tens of thousands of vulnerable people in camps displaced by the ongoing humanitarian crisis or in isolated villages,” the group said.
“There is no other medical non-government organization that operates at the scale of MSF with the experience and infrastructure to deliver necessary life-saving medical services,” the group said.
MSF Holland has operated in Burma since 1992 and implements medical aid projects in Arakan, which has suffered from inter-communal violence between Rohingyas and the Buddhist Arakanese majority, and in Shan, Kachin and Karen states, which are affected by ethnic conflict.
The US Embassy said on Friday afternoon that it was aware of the reported suspension of MSF operations and voiced concern over the impact on local communities.
“The United States encourages the Union Government to continue to work with the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to communities in need and to ensure unfettered access for humanitarian agencies, in accordance with international standards,” the embassy said.
Ye Htut said he attended meetings in Naypyidaw with Health Ministry officials Friday, where MSF was informed of supposed wrongdoings during aid work in Arakan State.
He said MSF had deployed more foreign staff then it was allowed to, had failed to stay impartial and neutral, and had run a medical care clinic for newborns against the wishes of the government.
“I told them how they had violated their agreement at a meeting today and … they admitted that they have some weak points,” he said, adding that Arakan State authorities and local communities had also urged the central government to halt MSF aid work.
“For example, we only allow them to have 19 foreign staff [in Arakan], but we found on the ground that they have 39 persons who were foreigners… and there were many persons who did not have registration to treat patients.”
Ye Htut went on to claim that MSF “only gave medical treatment to Bengalis,” before adding, “We are not against the whole MSF, we are only against some foreigners who working with MSF.”
Asked if he thought that government decision to halt MSF operations would hurt the international image of the Thein Sein government, Ye Htut said, “I do not think they would take this view because there are many NGOs working in our country. [The international community] will know we did it to those who violated agreements.”
Burma’s government does not recognize the approximately 1 million Rohingyas in northern Arakan State as citizens, and refers to the Muslim group as “Bengalis” to suggest that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and international human rights say the Rohingyas are subject to a range of grave human rights abuses at the hands of authorities and security forces, while government restrictions on the group, such as travel restrictions, violate basic human rights.
Authorities have been accused of colluding with the Arakanese Buddhist communities during bloody clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, which left almost 200 people dead. About 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, fled their homes and have since been forced to live in squalid, crowded camps.
Although the government claims that MSF has violated its MoU, the group’s current problems seem to be linked to a Jan. 13 incident in Du Chee Yar Tan, a Rohingya village in Maungdaw Township. The UN said it received “credible evidence” to indicate that Arakan villagers and government security forces were involved in an alleged massacre of dozens of Rohingyas.
In the wake of the incident, MSF said it had treated 22 patients who were wounded in the supposed attack on Du Chee Yar Tan village. The statement prompted an angry reaction from the government, which accused international media and aid groups of misreporting the events.
Burma’s government has vehemently denied the killings took place and government investigations claim that Rohingya villagers killed an on-duty police sergeant. Last week, the National Human Rights Commission said that “it was learned from 2 doctors of the MSF that their clinics did not treat any such patients.”
Ye Htut said MSF had refused to identify the Muslim patients from Du Chee Yar Tan village, adding “They should show to the investigation commission who they treated, but they did not show these persons to us.”
Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.