Myanmar Buddhists seek wider aid ban after MSF is barred from Rakhine

Buddhist groups target others after ban on Medecins Sans Frontieres

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 9:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 2:58am

For Muslim communities battling to exist in segregated camps in Rakhine state, aid groups provide a lifeline.

But that work is now under threat from Buddhist nationalist campaigns that prompted the government to eject Medecins Sans Frontieres (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 more than 100,000 people displaced, mainly Muslims.

In one of the bleak, dusty camps that are clustered on the outskirts of the state capital Sittwe, displaced people swarmed a humanitarian centre handing out household goods during a recent visit to the area.

If they have a success with MSF, they will move on to the next target
Independent analyst Richard Horsey

In the Muslim camps most are Rohingya, a stateless minority viewed as illegal migrants by Myanmese authorities.

Many Muslims are prevented from working by travel restrictions that seal them within a vast compound, leaving them reliant on international aid.

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.

However, there is bitter resentment among Buddhist nationalist groups over the dispensing of support to Muslim minority groups.

"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 said of foreign aid groups.

Richard Horsey, an independent analyst, said Rakhine nationalists, who have called for all international aid groups including the UN to leave the state, could see the suspension of aid work by MSF 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 said.

MSF, which has operated in Myanmar for more than 20 years, said on Friday that 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.

MSF warned that tens of thousands of people in Rakhine were facing a "humanitarian medical crisis" as a result of the decision, adding that it 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 UN has said dozens of Rohingya men, women and children were believed to have been killed in January in an attack in that area by Rakhine Buddhists, allegedly aided by police.

Reports of the killings have 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.