BANGKOK: Doctors Without Borders said Monday its teams had been threatened and stopped from reaching areas in Myanmar hit by communal bloodshed, leaving tens of thousands without essential health care.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced and dozens killed since June in Rakhine state in two major eruptions of violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, mainly from the Rohingya minority.
Whole neighbourhoods have been torched since the second round of unrest began last month, prompting another exodus and leaving already overcrowded camps struggling to cope with a growing humanitarian crisis.
France’s Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) said its teams face “ongoing antagonism generated by deep ethnic divisions”, which had stopped them from treating both those newly displaced and patients of its longer-term projects in the region.
“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 operations manager Joe Belliveau in a statement.
Some ethnic Rakhine leaders have campaigned against international aid agencies in recent months, claiming they favour the Rohingya. Aid groups deny the accusations.
“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,” Belliveau told AFP, adding the agency does not “play favourites”.
He said threats in letters, pamphlets and on the social networking site Facebook used “highly vitriolic” language which caused staff to fear for their safety.
“We are only out there to provide people with health care who need it the most… it is outrageous that this should be cut off. Anybody who needs health care should be getting health care,” he said.
Some of those who fled their homes were “very exposed” and Belliveau said MSF workers had found people with a variety of injuries, including those who had been burnt, stabbed or wounded by arrows or bullets.
MSF said it had worked with the government and other aid agencies to assess the medical needs of the thousands of newly displaced people near the Rakhine state capital Sittwe and surrounding areas.
It said some food, water and emergency health care had been provided, but warned that “having lost their homes and resources, many people are extremely vulnerable and their health status could deteriorate quickly”.
MSF, which has worked in Rakhine state since 1994, also provided long-term medical treatment – including for maternal health, malaria, malnutrition, TB and HIV.
But it said tens of thousands of people had gone without such medical care for months following the unrest.
Myanmar’s 800,000 Rohingya, described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted minorities, are seen by the government and many in the country as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
They make up the vast majority of those displaced in the fighting.
The United Nations in a report Friday urged that “adequate safety” be provided for humanitarian workers in the state, adding some staff continued to face threats.