An ailing Rohingya woman sits inside a shelter at an IDP camp outside of Sittwe in April of 2014 (Photo by John Zaw )
International aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has resumed operations in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, nine months after being banned over its alleged bias toward the Rohingya community.
The aid group said on Wednesday that it had restarted primary health clinics in the state on December 17 and was providing tens of thousands of people access to basic health care for first time since it was banned in February 2014.
“We welcome the progress we have made so far, but stress [that] there is space to do more, space we at MSF are willing and able to fill,” said Martine Flokstra, MSF Myanmar operational adviser, in a statement on Wednesday.
MSF was ordered to leave Rakhine following accusations its medical aid favored the state’s Rohingya Muslims over the Buddhist majority.
The government accused the group of falsifying reports about its treatment of 22 survivors of a massacre of 40 Rohingya in northern Rakhine that the UN said involved Myanmar security forces. In July the government backpedaled and invited the aid agency to return.
Dr Thaung Hlaing, head of Rakhine state’s health department, said the return of MSF would help provide better health care for communities in Rakhine especially in remote areas since the organization is more adept at treating malaria, HIV/AIDS and emergency referrals.
“We have tried our best during their nine-month absence but we have had limited resources and faced some difficulty in dealing with the Muslim community. So it’s less of a burden for us now [that] the MSF has resumed its work,” the doctor told ucanews.com on Thursday.
The doctor warned that MSF should work more closely with Myanmar’s Ministry of Health instead of acting independently since Rakhine is a sensitive area.
Prejudice and discrimination are deep-rooted in Rakhine state and local Buddhists frequently accuse aid workers and the international community at large of favoring the Rohingya, who the United Nations designate as one of the most persecuted peoples in the world.
Rakhine community leader, Than Tun, was not enthusiastic over MSF’s return to the restive state.
“The Rakhine community can’t accept MSF and we didn’t invite them. But we have to accept it since its the will of the state government and international pressure,” he told ucanews.com on Thursday.
“The MSF should meet with Rakhine community leaders and discuss its operations such as recruiting staff, where projects will be implemented. Otherwise the group may face opposition from locals like last year,” said Than Tun, who is also a member of the local emergency coordination committee.
In contrast, Rohingya communities are hailing the aid group’s return.
“The government have used mobile clinics during MSF’s absence but they can’t provide quality medicines to people and state hospitals can’t offer better treatment. So it’s good the Rohingya community can again access decent emergency and basic health care,” said Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader in Sittwe, the state capital.
Zeyar Min, an aid worker in Sittwe, said the negative attitude of the Buddhist community toward MSF has not really changed but pointed out that there have not been any protests so far.
“The Rakhine Buddhist community needs to understand that INGOs including MSF are responding to a humanitarian situation and working for the development of both communities,” he said.
Additional reporting by AFP