BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says hardline nationalists are threatening its staff and preventing them reaching victims of the latest sectarian clashes in western Myanmar which have killed 89 people and uprooted 35,000.
Many of the displaced are now living in camps, joining some 75,000 people who fled their homes after a previous explosion of violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya in June.
The United Nations says the majority of the newly displaced in Rakhine State are Rohingyas – an ethnic group which has been denied citizenship by Myanmar.
“That we are prevented from acting and threatened for wanting to deliver medical aid to those in need is shocking and leaves tens of thousands without the medical care they urgently need,” said MSF Operations Manager Joe Belliveau.
Both Rohingyas and Rakhines have urgent healthcare needs, including treatment for wounds, burns, malnutrition, diarrhoea and fever, Belliveau added. He also warned that the peak season for malaria was fast approaching.
Belliveau said there had been difficulties in getting access to affected people and permission from the authorities but things had improved.
“Our bigger problem comes from threats and intimidation from certain parts of the community, people who are saying, 'You can’t treat people from the other side. You can’t treat our enemies. We don’t allow that. We don’t think that’s right',” he told AlertNet in a phone interview.
Belliveau said MSF doctors and nurses, who act impartially in accordance with universal medical ethics, were unwilling to work because they were scared.
He said the threats mostly came from the Rakhine community and were general threats.
“We’ve been accused of overly supporting the Rohingya. In fact all we do is we simply go to where the needs are the most,” said Belliveau.
MSF said its operation in Rhakine State, one of its largest in the world, treated patients from all ethnic and religious groups.
“For the past 18 years we have treated many thousands of people from all communities in Rakhine, especially in the case of malaria and HIV/AIDS, and yet there is a certain perception and a certain accusation that we favour one group over the other,” Belliveau added.
He said MSF had the capacity to do a lot more to support the Myanmar government’s overstretched clinics but “greater tolerance and greater freedom of movement is needed”.
LONGER-TERM CARE ALSO AFFECTED
Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government, which has vowed to forge unity in one of Asia's most ethnically diverse nations, regards the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in the country as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Bangladesh does not recognise them either. They are officially stateless and the United Nations has referred to them as "virtually friendless".
MSF, which offers tuberculosis and maternal health services in Rakhine, said it was also concerned about the longer-term healthcare programmes in the northern part of the state which were suspended following the violence in June when at least 80 people died.
Belliveau said hundreds or thousands of people, who are not displaced but whose movements have been restricted as a result of the violence, have not had access to healthcare for months.
A U.N. situation report released on Oct. 28 said strong feelings against the United Nations and non-governmental organisations “has been fuelled by some elements in the Rakhine State”.
“Several pamphlets have been distributed and threats have been articulated against the entire humanitarian community,” it said, adding that certain partners had been told that their relief operations were biased.
“As a result, some assessment teams have been denied access to locations where people are displaced or relief supplies, including that of the government, have been refused,” the report said.
Last week, MSF had to postpone the opening of a new clinic in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, because of protests. The clinic intends to provide primary health care including AIDS treatment.
“It’s a small group of people who have this very strong line that organisations such as MSF are providing too much support to the Rohingyas, that we are somehow supporting their greater political ambition,” said Belliveau.
“The problem is that it’s our staff who are on the frontlines, who sometimes receive direct threats. They’re too scared and understandably so.”