While the news that Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) will be allowed to continue their work in most of Burma is certainly welcome, the decision by the Burmese government to shut down MSF’s operations in Rakhine state continues a trend of denying rights to the Muslim population who lives there. The lack of medical care puts lives at risk, but the international community and media continue to focus primarily on the potential market that is Burma.
Many communities in Burma remain under siege. Ethnic and religious minorities continue to live in fear and are suffering the consequences of forced displacement. The government of Burma, in an apparent pique over MSF disclosing that it had treated 22 patients who had suffered ”violence-related injuries” in an area where the government claimed only one police officer had died, made the short-sighted and ill-advised decision to shut down MSF’s operations.
The government has an obligation to ensure the right to health for all of its people. If it is unable to do so – whether because it lacks the resources or because of conflict – it must seek international assistance to meet that obligation. MSF has a long history of working in Burma and has focused on serving populations within the country that otherwise would not be able to access health care. This includes approximately 30,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, several thousand living with TB, and members of marginalized groups such as the Rohingya.
However, this is not the first time MSF has had to close down one of its operations in Burma. The organization was forced to close its malaria control program in Karen state because the government implemented restrictions that made it impossible for MSF to work properly.
Ongoing conflict, forced displacement, and poverty have all had an impact on the general health of people living in certain parts of Burma. MSF’s work has been lifesaving. The government, in shutting down the clinics where MSF provided much-needed services, is playing roulette with the lives of individuals and with the health of the general population. Not even the former military Juntas shut down operations of international organizations in Rakhine state, despite their clear dislike of the presence of outsiders in the region.
Depriving people of essential medicines such as anti-retrovirals and antibiotics for tuberculosis not only places individual patients at risk of illness and death, but may contribute to the emergence of strains of HIV or TB that are resistant to the medicines – placing a much larger group of people at risk.
Since anti-Muslim violence hit Rakhine state in 2012, there has been great risk to lives of civilians there. The local police supported Buddhist mobs and military units mostly did not intervene to stop the violence. Rohingya in Rakhine state have very little protection. The loss of an international presence greatly increases their risk of suffering more human rights abuses.
The health and human rights conditions of Rohingya in Rakhine state are unacceptable and the recent actions of the Burmese government indicate that they will get much worse.
The government of Burma should re-think its decision regarding MSF operations in the country, and must heed the calls for an independent investigation of the massacre that initiated this incident. Moreover, the international community should recognize that the health crisis in Rakhine state has politics at its root and that the lives of 135,000 internally displaced Rohingya, in addition to several hundred thousand Rohingya in the region, are at great risk if the international community fails to take this grave situation seriously.