The fate of tens of thousands of AIDS, TB and malaria patients in Myanmar is hanging in the balance following the government's order to international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to halt all work in the country.
One of the reasons cited by the government for ending MSF's 22-year presence is that it had given "preferential treatment" to Rohingya Muslims, who had borne the brunt of deadly sectarian violence in western Rakhine state.
MSF, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the largest provider of treatment for HIV and AIDS in Myanmar, said in a statement late Friday that it has been ordered by the government to cease all activities in the country.
"MSF is deeply shocked by this unilateral decision and extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of patients currently under our care across the country," it said.
"Today, for the first time in MSF’s history of operations in the country, HIV/AIDS clinics in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as Yangon division, were closed and patients were unable to receive the treatment they needed," it said.
"TB patients were unable to receive their life-saving medicine, including drug-resistant TB patients."
It said that the government decision "will have a devastating impact" on the 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients and more than 3,000 TB patients it is currently treating in Myanmar.
Discussions with government
MSF said it is in discussions with the government to allow its staff to resume life-saving medical activities across the country and continuing addressing the unmet heath needs of its people.
MSF did not say why the government was shutting the door on it but Myanmar's government spokesman Ye Htut was quoted saying that "MSF was giving Bengalis preferential treatment,” using the government term for the estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims.
Ye Htut also said that MSF had often overstepped the boundaries of its agreement with the government, including the number of foreign workers allowed to operate in the country.
The Rohingyas are considered by most people in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh although many of them have lived in the country for generations. The U.N. says they are among the world's most persecuted minorities.
Local media also quoted government officials as saying they were angry at the humanitarian group's public comments on recent killings of Rohingyas in Rakhine.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, citing "credible" information, had charged that at least 48 Rohingyas were killed by security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist civilians in Jan. 13 and 14 violence in Du Chee Yar Tan village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township.
The Myanmar government had rejected the U.N. account of the incident and ordered its own probe.
MSF had said that it had treated at least 22 patients with injuries believed to have resulted from violence in Maungdaw.
Last week, the U.N's rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, raised "serious concerns" over the impartiality of the Myanmar government probe over the violence.
Primary health care
MSF said that with the government's decision ordering it to close shop, it was unable to provide primary health care to the tens of thousands of vulnerable people in camps displaced by the ongoing humanitarian crisis or in isolated villages in Rakhine state.
"This includes facilitating life-saving referrals for patients that require emergency secondary hospital care to Ministry of Health facilities, as well as family planning and care for pregnant women and newborn babies."
More than 200 people have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless since communal clashes erupted in Rakhine state in 2012, with rights groups saying Rohingyas were the biggest casulaties.
The United States said it was "very concerned" by the Myanmar government's order to MSF to suspend operations.
"[W]e urge the government to continue to work with the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to communities in need and to ensure unfettered access for humanitarian agencies," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
"Obviously, this is essential – this kind of access is essential to the benefits of – to benefit the Burmese [Myanmar] people."
MSF said there is no other medical non-government organization that operates at the scale of the group with the experience and infrastructure to deliver necessary life-saving medical services.
"In our 22 years of presence in Myanmar, MSF has proven that we deliver healthcare to people based solely on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender, HIV status or political affiliation."
Since 2004, MSF said it has treated over 1,240,000 malaria patients in Rakhine state alone, where the disease is particularly endemic. Like HIV/AIDS and TB, malaria knows no ethnic boundaries, it said.
"MSF’s actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality."
Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.