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Activists: Burma’s Foreign Aid Group Ban Puts Thousands at Risk

  • Gabrielle Paluch

FILE - People from a Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDP) camp wait for a vehicle to return to their camp after waiting out cyclone Mahasen in a mosque outside Sittwe.

FILE - People from a Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDP) camp wait for a vehicle to return to their camp after waiting out cyclone Mahasen in a mosque outside Sittwe.

In western Burma’s Rakhine state, authorities asked international aid group Doctors Without Borders (known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF) to cease operations after accusations of aid bias. Activists say the ban will leave nearly 700,000 people without access to much needed medical care in the country's second-most impoverished region.

HIV-positive Ba Sein is also suffering from tuberculosis. He is living in close quarters with his wife and two children in a temporary camp for ethnic Muslim Rohingya on the outskirts of Sittwe.

Three months ago, doctors at a nearby clinic operated by Doctors Without Borders gave Ba Sein the diagnosis. But he cannot go in for his follow-ups because the clinic has closed.

Sittwe General Hospital is not far, but Ba Sein cannot travel there because security officers charge fees from the ethnic Rohingya minority. He said he has fevers every day, and wants to seek treatment but doesn't know where to go.

In this remote region of Burma, MSF has long been the primary source of reliable healthcare for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people. The group has been the primary responder to outbreaks of infectious diseases, and provides regular treatments for tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV.

But Doctors Without Borders drew controversy last month following an alleged attack on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state. MSF confirmed to international media that its doctors treated patients for wounds after a violent incident in Du Chee Ya Tar village. Human rights groups said at least 40 ethnic Rohingya were killed, a claim denied by the Burmese government.

Shortly after the group reported treating victims, authorities sent MSF an order to cease operations.

Although the Rakhine State Health Department said MSF’s suspension from operating in the region is only temporary, Burmese health authorities are consulting with the United Nations to plan for the sudden increase in patients. They said they will relocate staff from elsewhere in Burma to help with the workload.

"There is huge need here in Rakhine, there are a lot of people who already have inadequate access to health services and other basic services," explained Mark Cutts, who is responsible for the U.N.'s coordination office in Burma. He said they must put the needs of the people first.

"That's why we have a massive humanitarian operation in Rakhine state that's why we're working to support the government to ensure that vulnerable people here receive the essential life-saving services they need," Cutts said. "So when one of the biggest humanitarian organizations is asked to leave clearly that is a huge concern to us but the government have told us that there will be no gap in services."

The ban will primarily affect health care services for the ethnic Rohingya minority, the vast majority of whom live in northern Rakhine state. The ministry of health suggested it would bus patients in northern Rakhine state to Sittwe for treatment, but bringing ethnic Rohingya to a predominantly Rakhine area poses a security threat.

MSF provided anti-retroviral treatment for HIV for at least 650 patients living in northern Rakhine state.

A health professional who wished to remain unnamed told VOA that the government-run clinic in Da Paing IDP camp near Sittwe is already understaffed and lacks the facilities and resources to treat people. He said they often refer their patients to MSF.