Doctors Without Borders resume work in Myanmar after government shutdown

Officials forced the group to stop basic health care services to persecuted Rohingya minority nine months ago

January 21, 2015 12:33PM ET
by Wilson Dizard @willdizard

The government of Myanmar has allowed the medical charity Doctors Without Borders to resume its basic health care work among the Rohingya minority after a nine-month-long ban, but anti-Rohingya rhetoric in the country persists, this time directed at a United Nations official sent to report on the condition of the community.

Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), announced Tuesday that it recently reopened primary health clinics in Rakhine state, which the government had ordered closed in February. The clinics served a population of more than 750,000 people, most of them Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the mostly Buddhist country. Rakhine has been the site of frequent clashes between the two groups in recent years.

MSF had been kicked out of Rakhine in February 2014, amid accusations that the group favored Muslims over Buddhists. MSF says that it provides care based solely on need. The government of Myanmar, also called Burma, was widely criticized for the crackdown on MSF, which effectively cut off the largest provider of health care services, including a therapeutic feeding center, in a state where 20 percent of children are malnourished. MSF says it has done 3,480 outpatient consultations in the four weeks since reopening the clinics.

“We welcome the progress we have made so far, but stress there is space to do more, space we at MSF are willing and able to fill,” Martine Flokstra, the group’s Amsterdam-based operational advisor for the country, said in a press release. An MSF spokesman told Al Jazeera in an email that while most of the group’s operations had been restarted, “This is not a full resumption of activities.”

Under pressure to show progress on ensuring fundamental rights for the Rohingya, the government of Myanmar agreed last year to allow a United Nations human rights expert, Yanghee Lee, to make two fact-finding trips. In a report on Jan. 19, at the end of her second visit, Lee painted an alarming picture. “Valuable gains made in the area of freedom of expression and assembly risk being lost,” Lee said in a statement. “Indeed, there are signs that since my last visit, restrictions and harassment on civil society and the media may have worsened.”

At a protest against her visit last Friday, a prominent Buddhist monk called Lee a “whore” for her work on behalf of Myanmar’s Muslims. “Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn’t make you an honorable woman. In our country, you are just a whore,” the monk, Ashin Wirathu, told several hundred cheering supporters in Yangon, adding that the country should never lose control over Rakhine.

Another leading cleric, Thawbita, a leader of the Saffron Revolution Buddhist Monks Network, denounced Wirathu. “The words used that day are very sad and disappointing. It is an act that could hurt Buddhism very badly,” Thawbita said. The government of Myanmar said it is investigating Wirathu’s comments.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein sharply criticized Wirathu’s comments. “The sexist, insulting language used against the U.N.’s independent human rights expert on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, by an influential monk during Ms. Lee’s official visit to the country is utterly unacceptable. It is intolerable for U.N. Special Rapporteurs to be treated in this way,” he said in a statement.

Wirathu has established himself as the face of widespread anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and has been accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence. In September, he traveled to Sri Lanka, joining hands with a Buddhist nationalist group there to fight what he called “a serious threat against Buddhists” throughout the region.

There are about 1.1 million Rohingya in Myanmar, and they have endured years of official discrimination and attacks by Buddhist groups, forcing more than 140,000 to flee their homes. Hundreds have died in street clashes. Human Rights Watch concluded that they “have effectively been denied Burmese citizenship,” in a report released in October.

With wire services