An aid group said Monday that staffers had been “threatened” and prevented from accessing parts of western Burma’s Rakhine state where tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent medical treatment following weeks of communal violence.
The Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)—also known as Doctors Without Borders—said in a statement that team members had faced “ongoing animosity,” making it difficult to support members of both the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities reeling from the recent unrest.
“That we are prevented from acting and threatened for wanting to deliver medical aid to those in need is shocking and leaves tens of thousands without the medical care they urgently need,” said MSF Operations Manager Joe Belliveau.
Violence in the region erupted anew on Oct. 21, leaving 89 dead with 136 wounded, 5,351 houses burned down, and 32,231 people left homeless, according to official figures released last week. Earlier violence in June had left more than 80 dead and displaced 75,000, mostly Rohingyas, who now continue to live in overcrowded camps.
MSF said that its team members had been prevented from treating both those newly displaced and patients of longer-term projects in Rakhine state, where the group has operated since 1994.
MSF also runs malaria, primary health care, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS treatment, and maternal health care programs in the region, but said tens of thousands have lacked medical care since the violence began in June.
The Rohingyas, whom the United Nations considers among the world's most persecuted minorities, are believed to have bore the brunt of the June and latest violence. The group is seen by the government and by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Some ethnic Rakhine leaders have claimed that international aid groups are favoring the Rohingyas and have called for their removal from the region, though the groups deny the allegations.
Belliveau told Agence France-Presse that the MSF does not “play favorites.”
"The animosity is rooted in a small minority of the population but a very vocal one. They must accept that a very basic medical act is not somehow supporting the other side," he said.
Team members had received threats in letters and pamphlets and on Facebook, causing them to fear for their safety, he said.
MSF had encountered people in the area that had been injured in fires, stabbings, and arrow attacks and by bullets while working with the government to assess the medical needs of thousands of newly displaced people near the Rakhine capital Sittwe and surrounding areas.
The MSF’s statement came as the international community urged reformist President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government to do more to end conflict in the region.
Leaders in the west and within the new government have warned that continued violence threatens to derail the rapid democratic changes Thein Sein has implemented since taking power from the former military junta in March last year.
On Monday, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry summoned Burma’s ambassador to inform him of the country’s “deep resentment” over the renewal of violence against the Rohingyas, according to a report posted on the Egypt State Information Service website, quoting ministry spokesman Amr Roshdi.
The ministry also urged the Burmese government to take “swift and strong measures” to end the violence against Muslims in the country, bring those who committed those acts to justice, and end communal discrimination against the Rohingyas.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Monday called the violence against the Rohingyas “an issue of concern” for all of Southeast Asia.
"Of course the matter to do with the Rohingya, the Rakhine state, is an issue of concern for ASEAN countries, for individual ASEAN countries," AFP quoted Natalegawa as saying, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—an intergovernmental body in the region.
"We [Indonesia] wish very much for Myanmar [Burma] to be able to address this problem in a positive way in the same way that it has on the overall democratic process," he said ahead of an Asia-Europe summit in Laos.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, also in Laos to attend the summit, called on Burma to resolve the citizenship status of the Rohingya, which he said is a root cause of the ethnic violence in Rakhine state.
"We would like the problems, the unresolved problems of the status of the Rohingya people to be addressed by the leaders in Burma across politics," AFP reported Hague telling reporters on Monday.
He pledged to raise the issue with Burmese leaders “when I have the opportunity to do so.”
Establishing ‘rule of law’
Also on Monday, Burmese Union Minister for Border Affairs Lt. Gen. Thein Htay said the government would crack down on anyone taking advantage of the Rakhine unrest to further their own interests.
The minister also urged senior community leaders from both the Rakhine and Rohingya communities to cooperate to end the violence in the region, according to a report by the official New Light of Myanmar.
"Stern legal action" will be taken against people and organizations that manipulate the Rakhine incidents, Thein Htay said during a fact-finding tour to the region by the ambassadors of the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
"[Community leaders] are urged to cooperate in solving the conflicts between the two societies by legal and peaceful means."
Thein Htay’s comments followed a call from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Saturday to end communal violence in Rakhine state, while pledging more than U.S. $100 million in development aid to Burma during a meeting with Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw.
Barroso’s visit was part of a Southeast Asian tour that included Thailand and Indonesia before arriving in Laos to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting.
While in Burma, Barroso also spoke with opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who, following their talks on Saturday, told the BBC in a brief broadcast interview that she would not take sides regarding the violence in Rakhine.
“I’m urging tolerance, but I do not think one should misuse one’s moral leadership—if you want to call it that—to promote a particular cause without really looking into the sources of the problems,” she said.
“Both sides are displeased because I will not take a stand with them, but my stand is that first let us establish rule of law.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.