A leading international charity has been told it can no longer work in Burma after it was accused of providing preferential treatment to Rohingya Muslims.
Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) Holland has been told that its contract to provide health care to some of the country’s most deprived communities has been terminated.
“Medécins Sans Frontières Holland has been ordered by the government of Myanmar to cease all activities in the country. MSF is deeply shocked by this unilateral decision and extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of patients currently under our care across the country,” the charity said in a statement.
It added: “Today, for the first time in MSF’s history of operations in the country, HIV clinics in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as Yangon division, were closed and patients were unable to receive the treatment they needed. TB patients were unable to receive their life-saving medicine.”
The announcement followed claims by MSF that it had treated more than 20 people with knife and gunshot wounds after an attack by a Buddhist mob on members of a Rohingya community in January that left 40 dead. The government had repeatedly denied any such massacre took place.
On Friday, Burma’s Myanmar Freedom newspaper reported that Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, had said MSF’s contract to work in Rakhine state, where the vast majority of the Rohingya are located, would not be extended. He said MSF had been illegally employing Rohingya members.
MSF has worked in Burma for almost 20 years and has been active in Rakhine since the summer of June 2012 when a series of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims led to more than 150,000 Rohingya being forced to flee their homes. Villages were set alight and scores of people were killed.
The Rohingya Muslims say they have been present in Burma for hundreds of years. Yet most Burmese politicians fail to recognise them as one of the country’s dozens of indigenous groups and refer to them as “Bengalis”. They face widespread persecution both in Burma and across the border in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
In its statement, MSF said talks between MSF Holland and the government were continuing. Some reports suggested other affiliates of MSF may be able to continue operating in Burma, though it was unclear.
MSF had worked in 15 camps for displaced people in Rakhine, often providing the only healthcare available to the refugees.
Yet in recent days, Buddhist groups have been protesting against the group and holding regular demonstrations, calling upon the government to get rid of it. MSF says its work has been severely hampered as a result.
“MSF’s actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality,” said the charity. “MSF is in discussions with the government of Myanmar to allow our staff to resume life-saving medical activities and continue addressing the unmet heath needs of its people.”
Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK said he believed the decision would cost lives. “The Burmese government seem to be gambling that based on the weak response from the international community regarding human rights abuses against the Rohingya, they can get away with this without facing serious consequences,” he added.
Since Thein Sein released most political prisoners and set Burma on a course to greater democracy at the end of 2010, activists have repeatedly raised concerns about the plight of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
Few have suffered more than the estimated 1.3m Rohingya. Earlier this week, the group Fortify Rights released a report based on leaked government documents it said showed how official policies restricted the Rohingya community’s “movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship”.