THE closure of Médecins Sans Fron-tières operations in Rakhine State is only “temporary”, a government health oﬃcial has insisted, but a sen-ior state oﬃcial says it will likely be at least seven months before the aid group is allowed to resume activities in the trouble-hit region.Ministry of Health deputy director general U Soe Lwin Nyein told
The Myanmar Times
that MSF’s expulsion from Rakhine State would not be permanent. However, he said he could not estimate the duration of the ban.Rakhine State Department of Health director U Aye Nyein said the ban was unlikely to be rescinded until October or November. He said fears that this month’s census would prompt more communal violence had contributed to the decision to evict the organisation’s staﬀ.
The Myanmar Times
understands, however, that MSF has not been in-formed that the ban is temporary, or been oﬀered a date for a possible re-sumption of services.The group has declined to com-ment publicly on the situation while negotiations continue, but reports suggest MSF has been instructed to withdraw its staﬀ from Rakhine as soon as possible. There are concerns that the de-cision to evict the international aid organisation, which has worked in Myanmar for more than 20 years and has more than 600 staﬀ in Rakhine State alone, has potentially put hun-dreds of patients’ lives at risk, particu-larly those with HIV/AIDS or TB who rely on regular access to medicine.UN agencies and major INGOs working in the region say local health organisations lack the facilities and human resources to replace the ser- vices provided by MSF. Patients in remote and rural areas, which aid or-ganisations have been serving via mo- bile clinics, are said to be particularly vulnerable. Another key area of concern is the potential shortfall in treatments for the Rohingya Muslim population, many of whom face restrictions on movement that limit their access to the state health system. A government statement released on March 2 indicated that the authori-ties would consider allowing MSF to resume operations in Rakhine if cer-tain conditions, which were not speci-ﬁed, are met.But U Soe Win Nyein insisted the national government fully expects MSF to resume work in the state. “[It has been] temporarily suspended. It is not permanent,” he said.He added that the Ministry of Health was capable of managing the health needs of “the whole commu-nity” in Rakhine State, adding, “We don’t need to lose any lives [because of the ban].”“The Ministry of Health is taking all the national health services to the community [including the IDPs] … The ministry is doing routine health services.” Asked why MSF was being pres-sured by the state government to leave Rakhine immediately, U Aye Nyein said the government fears staﬀ from the organisation, which has been accused by many ethnic Rakh-ine of favouring the Rohingya, may be attacked if they are not moved out quickly.He said the government is also “afraid” that its staﬀ could be targeted by Rakhine community groups if it al-lows MSF to stay.U Aye Nyein said the state gov-ernment was also concerned about preventing “further social conﬂict at the end of [this] month [when] we will start the census [and] we will be talking to both communities, Rakh-ine and Rohingya”. While state and local authorities say all arrangements have been made for Myanmar’s ﬁrst census in 30 years, a number of observers have cautioned that the census, particularly its ques-tions on race and religion, could in-ﬂame tensions in some parts of the country, particularly Rakhine State. After the census is completed, the state government “will have nego-tiations with both communities and [maybe] in October or November” MSF will be allowed to return. Whether a temporary shutdown will be enough to satisfy hard-line Rakhine community leaders is unclear. Since the MSF closure was announced, a number of other INGOs and UN agencies in Rakhine State have been the target of online threats.Meanwhile, a “watch group” of civil society representatives has been established in Sittwe to monitor INGO activities. Asked if the banning of MSF would encourage activists to target other in-ternational aid organisations, U Aye Nyein said it “depend[ed] on the ac-tivities of the organisation. They must have transparency about what they are doing for both communities.”
MSF ban temporary,Rakhine ofﬁcials say
A LOSS by the ruling Union Solidar-ity and Development Party in the 2015 general election would not be a setback for Myanmar’s peace pro-cess or the country’s transition to a democratic state, the party’s leader said on March 6. Thura U Shwe Mann told report-ers at a press conference in Nay Pyi Taw that regardless of who wins next year’s election, he believes the peace process will continue unaﬀected. “If we lose, I don’t believe there will be an impact on the peace and tranquillity of the state or on moving toward a democratic state,” he said.“We are trying to hold a free and fair election. If we lose, we will ac-cept the result of the election be-cause that’s the democratic practice.” The USDP will face its biggest challenger in the main opposition party, the National League for De-mocracy (NLD), but Thura U Shwe Mann said the USDP intends to put up a strong but fair ﬁght. He said he has crossed party lines to work closely with NLD chairper-son Daw Aung San Suu Kyi since she entered parliament in 2012. “We welcomed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when she came into parlia-ment. She also accepted the concept of national reconciliation. We have cooperated now to work to realise it, but in the election [the USDP] will ﬁght fairly to win,” Thura U Shwe Mann said. Though Myanmar started down a path of reforms three years ago under the government of President U Thein Sein, speculation has re-mained high that ex-Senior General Than Shwe and people allied with him remain inﬂuential in national politics. Thura U Shwe Mann did not comment on this issue speciﬁcally, but he did say there are many peo-ple active today in Myanmar poli-tics and that almost all are trying to inﬂuence the 2015 election. No matter who wins, Thura U Shwe Mann said, the victorious party must give special attention to national reconciliation and working across political lines.Thura U Shwe Mann also touched on the upcoming national census be-ing carried out by the government with help from the United Nations Population Fund. The census has been widely criti-cised by ethnic groups and academ-ics who believe it could further wid-en ethnic divides in the country. Thura U Shwe Mann said the census is needed for the sake of the country and should be carried out according to the deadline set by the government, but he also admitted that the process is not perfect. “There will be some problems during the census, but people will suﬀer if the government doesn’t do it,” he said. “I think the ministries will over-come the problems and will work in the best way possible to make the process a success. We, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, are ready to help the process if they face prob-lems and request help.” But he warned that if the census was halted now, it was unclear when the process could be restarted and completed.
USDP election defeat would not affect peace process
EI EI TOE LWIN
‘We don’t need to lose any lives [because of the ban].’
U Soe Win Nyein
Ministry of Health
FIONA MACGREGORSHWE YEE SAW MYINT
Nur Ha Tu holds her baby in the doorway of her hut in the Aung Mingalar ghetto in Sittwe, Rakhine State, on March 5.
Photo: Fiona MacGregor