YANGON, Myanmar — Last month’s decision by the government of Myanmar to suspend the operations of the medical aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) prompted widespread concerns about the impact the organization’s withdrawal would have on the tens of thousands reliant on the support they provide.
Since that time, the temporary ban has been revised, and now only covers Rakhine state, on the country’s western coast.
In the wake of the announcement, government spokespersons stressed that the chief reasons for this decision were that MSF had breached the terms of a memorandum of understanding with Naypyidaw—the capital city of Myanmar—and had shown favour unduly toward one ethnic group in Rakhine.
However, documentary evidence and testimony obtained by GlobalPost appears to contradict this publicly stated rationale and instead suggests that the action may be punitive, linked to MSF’s response to a massacre that occurred at the end of January in northern Rakhine state—the same area where the charity's ability to operate remains frozen.
The village of Du Chee Ya Tan lies a few miles south of the town of Maungdaw, not far from Myanmar's border with Bangladesh.
The now near-deserted settlement is reported to have been the site of mass slayings perpetrated by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and riot police in the early hours of Jan. 14. The attack is believed to have targeted the village's ethnic Rohingya Muslims, and to have been prompted by the alleged killing of a policeman several hours before.
The official position of Naypyidaw on the event in question remains that no massacre occurred and that only the police officer died, a stance affirmed in a recently released internal report commissioned by the government.
By contrast, the United Nations issued a statement in January estimating that up to 48 people, mainly women and children, had been slaughtered; for their part, MSF reported that they had treated 22 people from the village suffering from a variety of injuries, including gunshot wounds.
Spokesmen for Naypyidaw described the UN's statements on the matter as "unacceptable" and later cited MSF’s statement on the incident as a peripheral reason for their removal, along with the complaint that the charity had employed Rohingya.
Rights groups are now concerned that the operational ban and persistent denial is just a government effort to silence witnesses and those who treated victims of the alleged attack.
“The Myanmar government's total denial of deaths in Du Chee Ya Tan, combined with its effort to prevent international reporting about that violence, raises serious suspicions that they are seeking to muzzle all outside observers—with MSF being first and foremost in that category," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, adding to a chorus of concern from others consulted in the NGO community.
What’s more, a purported government-issued document shared with this writer by concerned professionals within the NGO community, and judged authentic by Burmese sources who have asked to remain anonymous, appears to indicate that the shutting down of MSF's two decades of work in the area was directly prompted by the organization’s response to Du Chee Ya Tan.
The document appears to be a “telegraphic order” dated Feb. 26, circulated among high officials in Naypyidaw, Yangon and Rakhine state, and signed by the deputy chief of the Police Information Bureau, acting under orders from Burmese President Thein Sein.
It states that a letter sent by MSF to Rakhine state's department of health reporting on the alleged massacre was “provocative” and “biased toward one ethnic group” in such a way as was intended to “instigate violent conflict.” “For that reason,” the document continues, “the President's Office has given an order to strike off [MSF] from registry of INGOs and not to grant an extension when their permit expires.”
Orders to monitor the work of the organization are then outlined in the following paragraph.
While the authenticity of the latter document could not immediately be verified, its contents appear to corroborate the testimony of high-ranking staff within an authoritative non-governmental organization operating in Myanmar.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the staff stated that the MSF move was “precisely because of their reporting on Du Chee Ya Tan,” especially owing to the fact that they “provided corroborating evidence” to the findings of rights groups and the UN on the alleged massacre.
One of the sources, who has access to privileged information, added that “the government is trying to work out who helped these organisations with... information [on the massacre]” and has engaged in a “cover up” of the events near Maungdaw.
Another source, who also declined to be identified, referred to the government's removal of MSF as an attempt to take “eyes off the ground” in Rakhine state.
Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Bangkok, opined that “it appears MSF was evicted because they provide vital aid to Rohingya and because they know too much about what happened in Maungdaw. This was a brazen demonstration of power and abuse. Naypyidaw is sending a disturbing message to the humanitarian community.”
He also referred to the decision to pull the medical aid group as “the latest act of persecution against the Rohingya,” many of whom rely on foreign aid due to their statelessness, a result of the official policy of both Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, neither of whom recognise the ethnic group as citizens.
As a result, access to basic healthcare, education and other services that would otherwise be provided by the state are severely restricted for the minority.
Smith’s assessment has been echoed by statements recently issued by Myanmar’s outgoing Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, who said that the expulsion of the charity could be “part of a strategy toward consolidating not only the segregation of Rohingyas, but also the oppression against them, including complete limitation to access to health.”
Whatever the veracity of the above claims, the limitation of MSF's work in Myanmar will undoubtedly have a profound impact on affected populations in one of the country's poorest and most restive provinces.
MSF are concerned that thousands will be affected by their eviction from Rakhine state, including many reliant on HIV/AIDS treatment and other urgently needed programs. A recent report in the New York Times indicated that 150 people had already died as a result of the charity’s exit, many of them pregnant women.
The government has said it believes it is capable of filling the medical aid gap left by the organization; however, Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the United Nation’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) appeared to cast doubt on this confident assessment, telling GlobalPost that “replacing the MSF operation will be very difficult due to the scale and complexity of the operations that MSF has built up over many years, particularly in the northern part of Rakhine.”
MSF declined to comment on the either the purported document or their expulsion from Rakhine state.