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Medical Group Warns of Emergency in Burma's Rakhine State

  • Daniel Schearf

Muslim refugees stand near their tents in Awetawgyi refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Burma, January 8, 2013.

Muslim refugees stand near their tents in Awetawgyi refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Burma, January 8, 2013.

Doctors Without Borders is warning of a growing humanitarian crisis in Burma's western Rakhine state, where communal fighting last year displaced more than 100,000 people, most of them Muslims. The medical aid group says threats against its staff have hampered efforts to improve sanitation and health care and that the situation is likely to worsen with the next monsoon.

Doctors Without Borders says tens of thousands of people living in relief camps in Burma's Rakhine state are still unable to access much-needed medical care.

The medical aid group, known by its French abbreviation MSF (Medcins sans Frontiers), issued a statement Thursday saying medical support and sanitation for the camps need to be stepped up.

It says months after communal fighting devastated Rakhine state, too many people are still living in makeshift tents and lack access to clean water and basic provisions.

Speaking from Rangoon, Arjan Hehenkamp, general director for MSF, says the upcoming monsoon season is likely to worsen the situation.

"Particularly as we're approaching the rainy season, that will come up, we're very concerned that [if] this [help] does not scale up, an immediate scale-up of the activities today, then we'll face even a much worse situation in the next weeks and months," said Hehenkamp.

Communal fighting in western Burma broke out last year between the mainly Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim minorities, the Kaman and Rohingya.

Clashes erupted after a busload of Muslims were murdered by a Rakhine mob in a revenge for the rape of a Buddhist girl, allegedly by Muslims.

Tit-for-tat violence left close to 200 people dead, thousands of homes burned and more than 100,000 people displaced into relief camps, most of them stateless Rohingyas.

Hehenkamp says the biggest obstacle to helping those in need in Rakhine is not the number of foreign staff or even funding, but in getting enough local hires to help out. He says, since the communal violence broke out last year, MSF has lost 150 national staff who left because of intimidation and communal tensions.

"They felt affected. They were affected by the conflict and by the tensions between these communities," said Hehenkamp. "And, therefore, yes, they felt it was impossible for them to continue with their work with MSF because we are trying to serve both communities. But, we are also serving the Muslim community the most because there are many more Muslims displaced and they are living in worse conditions than the Rakhine displaced."

MSF is urging Burmese authorities to publicly voice support for their work to reduce threats against it and other foreign aid organizations.

Burma does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, despite an estimated 800,000 of them living in Rakhine, many of them for generations.

They are considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh, where they are also rejected.

Many Rohingya take to boats to escape the conflict and find work in Malaysia. Some end up in Thailand as illegals and can get arrested or pushed back out to sea by the military.

Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command Thursday said nearly 6,000 Rohingya have arrived in the country since October.

The Bangkok Post says more than 4,000 of them were "pushed out", a practice rights group and the United Nations refugee agency have criticized as inhumane.

Colonel Jakkrit Tangjittaporn is with the spokesperson's office of ISOC. He would not comment on whether Rohingya were pushed back to sea or how many remained in Thailand, but says they do their best to help.

"We help also on basis of human right(s) to give Rohingya people to have food, drinks and accommodation," said Jakkrit.

More than 1,400 Rohingya were detained in Thailand's south, last month.

Jakkrit says Thailand is working with the U.N. refugee agency for a regional, long-term solution.

The United Nations says the Rohingya are among the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana will visit Rakhine state next week to assess the situation.

Quintana will also visit northern Kachin state where heavy fighting between Burma's military and Kachin rebels has displaced more than 80,000 villagers.
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