RANGOON — A senior government official has reportedly told Arakanese community leaders that Burma’s decision to allow Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to resume work in Arakan State was the result of significant pressure from the international community
The government last week invited the medical NGO to return to the state in western Burma after it was forced to leave in February amid opposition to the group’s presence from Arakanese Buddhist leaders, who believe MSF has shown bias in favor of Rohingya Muslims.
Before it was expelled, the NGO was a major health care provider in Arakan State, where inter-communal violence since mid-2012 has killed dozens of people and displaced about 140,000, mostly from the stateless Rohingya minority.
It is unclear on what terms MSF will return, but the move may spark opposition in the state, with a Twitter account linked to the President’s Office claiming a statewide protest is being planned.
President’s Office Minister Soe Thein met with more than 100 local leaders in the state capital, Sittwe, on Sunday, allegedly admitting that international pressure had forced the government’s hand.
“He [Soe Thein] told us that in order to give favor to the international community, our government has to let MSF come back to Arakan,” community leader Than Tun told The Irrawaddy.
“They [the international community] put a lot of pressure on our government about this. This is why our government had to invite MSF back.”
Soe Thein told the community leaders he wanted to “apologize to the ethnic Arakanese people” for the government’s decision, Than Tun said.
Burma has been criticized for its handling of the situation in Arakan State by the UN and Western governments, which are providing significant development aid to the reformist government that took power in 2011.
Prior to MSF’s expulsion, the aid group said it had treated patients wounded in a massacre of Rohingya in Maungdaw Township’s Du Chee Yar Tan village that the government said did not happen. Weeks later, riots broke out in Sittwe against other foreign aid organizations’ offices and staff, and since then a panel involving Arakanese leaders, including Than Tun, has scrutinized applications to conduct humanitarian projects in Arakan State.
Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said that the government should find a compromise with the ethnic Arakanese community before allowing MSF to return.
“There will be no problem with our ethnic people if the government maintains that MSF must not act with bias when offering aid to refugees. Of course, our region needs help from MSF, but it’s important that the government listens to the desires of our people,” said Pe Than, adding that MSF, which has been accused of disproportionately hiring Muslims, must employ more Arakanese people.
A delegation led by Soe Thein, which also included Immigration Minister Khin Yi and US Ambassador Derek Mitchell, met with Muslim leaders in Sittwe on Sunday. Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist in Sittwe, said that discussions centered on an ongoing citizenship verification process, rather than the return of MSF to the state.
When MSF left the region, the Ministry of Health said it would step up its delivery of medical services in Arakan State, but numerous reports suggest that many have been left without access to medical services.
MSF issued a statement on Friday in which it welcomed the government’s invitation to return to Arakan State.
“MSF is cautiously optimistic about this development,” said Marcel Langenbach, director of operations for MSF in Amsterdam in the statement.
“Given that for many people in Rakhine access to medical services remains a major challenge, we hope that MSF can restart treating patients as soon as possible.”