Burma Without Doctors

Protestor carry the image of a policeman, as others hold banners and placards during a protest march in Sittwe, Rakhine State on February 3. European Pressphoto Agency
A crackdown on a humanitarian organization threatens to undermine efforts to reform.

Burma's government has been working overtime to rebuild its reputation as it seeks to gain favor with global leaders and investors. Yet a recent dispute with Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF), arising from a longstanding ethnic conflict, threatens to undo the country's progress—and to injure thousands of Burmese civilians.

MSF's clinics in Burma's restive Rakhine state were closed on Feb. 28 after the group publicly stated it had treated 22 members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority for gunshot wounds and beatings in mid-January. The region has been plagued by ethnic violence since the alleged murder of a Buddhist police officer on Jan. 13, but the government denies that the Rohingya treated by MSF were injured by Buddhist mobs storming a Muslim village.

A United Nations investigation concluded on Jan. 24 that at least 40 Rohingya had been murdered with swords, knives and sticks. Yet the government said this week that there was no evidence anyone died. The fact that the government has allowed MSF to reopen clinics elsewhere in Burma except for Rakhine suggests it does not want the world to know about the violence taking place there.

If the Burmese government's aim is to put a lid on a volatile region, denying that the problem exists won't work. Already there is evidence that conflict is escalating within Burma, and the Rohingya are increasingly a cause elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Seven Indonesian men were caught last year in a foiled attempt to bomb the Burmese embassy in Jakarta, and riots there have called for jihad against the Burmese government to defend the Rohingya.

A move to deny health care to thousands of Burmese will only encourage a sense that the country's majority has it in for the Rohingya. MSF clinics, which opened in 1992, have treated more than one million Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine alone, with the bulk of treatment going to those who don't otherwise have access to medical care. The group's expulsion comes on top of a long list of other perceived injustices against the Rohingya, not least a 1982 law that stripped Rohingya of their citizenship and rights to own property or move freely.

Burma's successes in recent years have come as a result of the government's newfound willingness to open up to the rest of the world. Closing off a region in need of lifesaving aid is a perilous step backward. 


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