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NGO warns of ‘second tragedy’ in western Burma

An official from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) expressed concern that parts of Arakan state may face a “second tragedy” if medical personal are kept from providing aid to those in need.

The organisation was forced to withdrawal senior personnel on 17 July due to a backlash from rumours about the group’s funding and intentions that have been circulating by social media outlets and leaflets.

Vickie Hawkins, deputy head of mission in Burma from MSF-Holland, denied rumours that weapons were found in an MSF building and that funding for the organisation comes from Islamic financial backers.

“We reject the rumours,” said Hawkins. “They are totally untrue. The main concern for us is access to the people who have been displaced. They are the worst affected.”

Once such leaflet states that MSF is, “A Holland and French NGO that is importing arms for [Kalars] to occupy Rakhine state.” Kulars is a pejorative term used to describe people of South Asian descent in Burma.

The rumours arose last month following the outbreak of violence in Arakan state aimed at the area’s Muslim Rohingya population. MSF employee Kyaw Hla Aung was arrested on 13 June “under existing law.”

On 6 July, MSF confirmed that six local staff had been detained, with one later being released.

Hawkins refused to comment on the individual cases.

MSF premises in Arakan state have been searched multiple times by government officials according to Hawkins, however; none of the searches have turned up any weapons or evidence of them.

“The government has assured us that they are happy with us,” said Hawkins in reference to the searches.

The accusations of MSF’s funding being drawn from Islamic backers has also been deemed baseless and an attempt to undermine healthcare efforts.

According to MSF’s 2010 financial statements, the latest available, the organisation received donations from 5 million individuals and private institutions totaling 943 million euros that year. These donations accounted for 91 percent of total donations. Only seven percent was attributed to public institutional income and two percent was marked as “other income.”

The disruptions come at an unfortunate time. Burma’s rainy months mark the beginning of malaria season, where cases of the deadly virus peak.

Malaria is one of Burma’s leading killers and Arakan state is an area where infection rates are particularly high.  In 2010, MSF tested more than 400,900 patients in Arakan and treated more than 122,380 individuals.

“We could see increased rates of malaria again. If it were to get to that stage it would put us back a lot,” said Hawkins.

The accusations leveled at MSF signal larger distrust of aid groups working in Arakan state. The same leaflet promises to describe, “how disgusting and terrifying the UN and NGOs are.”

“Not only Rakhine [Arakan] but also all the people know that [Kalars] have grown up thanks to UN and NGOs that have watered poisonous plants,” the leaflet states. “We recognize those, who work for the further development of [Kalars] by earning dollars, as traitors.”

On 5 July, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that some of its staff were being held for “questioning.” Reports from the Narinjara news website stated that three of the UN officials appeared in Maungdaw District Court on 10 July.  One was identified as Cholaymar Khatoon.

The leaflet takes direct aim at a number of NGOs but has its harshest criticisms for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP), threatening both with attack.

Representatives of human rights organisation Amnesty International have also emphasised the importance of providing displaced peoples with assistance at this time.

“The human rights and humanitarian needs of those affected by the violence depend on the presence of monitors and aid workers,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma Researcher in a statement issued by the organisation on 20 July.

On Wednesday, Aung San Suu Kyi used her first speech in parliament to call for greater recognition of minority rights, but failed to mention the Rohingya’s plight by name leading some to say that she is not going far enough in her calls for equality.

MSF has been working in Burma since 1992 in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health, including in the areas of malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

The organisation is the largest single provider of antiretroviral treatment (ART) for HIV/AIDS in Burma and provided 623 patients in Rakhine state with ART in 2011.

MSF operates 24 clinics and 10 malaria field sites throughout the country.

-Ray Byrne is a pseudonym for a journalist working inside Burma.


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