For Muslim communities eking out an existence in segregated camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, aid groups provide a lifeline but their work is coming under threat from Buddhist nationalist campaigns that have pushed the government to eject Doctors Without Borders (MSF) from the region.
Experts warn that the decision last week to halt MSF’s activities in Rakhine sends a chilling message to humanitarian agencies working in the impoverished western state, which remains volatile following two major eruptions of communal bloodshed in 2012 that left over a hundred thousand people displaced, mainly Muslims.
In one of the bleak, dusty camps which are clustered on the outskirts of the state capital Sittwe, displaced people swarmed a humanitarian centre handing out household goods during a recent AFP visit to the area.
In the Muslim camps most of the inhabitants are Rohingya - a stateless minority viewed as illegal migrants by Myanmar authorities - although there are other Muslim ethnic groups taking shelter after the violence.
Many Muslims are prevented from working by travel restrictions that seal them within a vast compound, leaving them reliant on international aid for necessities. Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists were also displaced in the fighting, but they do not face the same restrictions as Muslims and are largely able to access employment and services.
An aid group visited by AFP asked not to be singled out in reporting amid bitter resentment among ethnic Rakhine Buddhist nationalist groups over the dispensing of support. “They neglect our people,” said Shwe Maung, a senior member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, in comments made before the MSF announcement. “They are not for us, we know that, but they are helping our enemies,” he told AFP.
‘Humanitarian medical crisis’
Richard Horsey, an independent analyst, said Rakhine nationalists, who have called for all international aid groups including the United Nations to leave the state, could see the MSF suspension as an endorsement of their calls.
“What next? If the Rakhine nationalists think they can kick people out, if they have a success with MSF, they will move on to the next target,” he told AFP.
MSF, which has operated in Myanmar for over two decades, on Friday said the government had instructed it to cease all operations in the country. But authorities have since softened their stance, allowing the organisation to resume its work everywhere but Rakhine.
The medical group, which insists it gives treatment purely on need, had programmes in nine townships across Rakhine, including providing primary healthcare to Rohingya communities who are prevented from accessing state facilities.
It warned that tens of thousands of people in Rakhine were facing a “humanitarian medical crisis” as a result of the decision, adding that MSF was continuing to negotiate with the government over access to the state.
MSF has faced a concerted campaign of local protests in recent weeks, after saying it treated injured people in its clinic near Du Chee Yar Tan village in northern Rakhine.
The United Nations has said dozens of Rohingya men, women and children are believed to have been killed in January in an attack in the area by ethnic Rakhines allegedly aided by police. The episode has been strongly denied by the government.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project which campaigns on Rohingya rights, said the MSF suspension was “extremely worrying” and could prompt further campaigns against other aid organisations.
“This is unacceptable in a country that claimed to be on a path to democratisation,” Lewa said.
Unrest in Rakhine sparked anti-Muslim violence across the country last year that has tarnished Myanmar’s reformist image and caused international concern.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar in rickety boats since the violence began, mostly heading for Malaysia, in what activists say is an increasingly formalised human trafficking network. Hundreds have drowned in rough seas making the attempt.
Speaking a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants and rendered effectively stateless.
Horsey said the country’s reformist leadership was under intense pressure from Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine and wider Myanmar society. “It seems that they feel they have to do something to appease these hardliner elements and that is a worrying signal of how much power those elements have,” he told AFP.
Myanmar President Thein Sein, a former junta general who won international plaudits for sweeping reforms since taking power three years ago, mooted sending displaced Muslims in Rakhine to a third country or UN-administered camps after the first wave of violence in 2012.
His calls were welcomed by a cabal of radical monks, who have been accused of using their privileged position in Myanmar society to fuel sectarian tensions. Monks in Rakhine have appeared at protests against international organisations and some clerics express deep mistrust towards Muslim communities.
Nandawbatha, from Abaya monastery in Sittwe, accused aid groups of stoking the violence to justify their work. “If there were no problems between the two communities they could not stay here. So they create problems. They are the origin of the conflicts here,” he told AFP.–AFP