Mon 5 Nov 2012
Filed under: Health,News
Bangkok – Radical Buddhist groups are preventing doctors from delivering assistance to areas of western Myanmar affected by intense sectarian violence, an international medical charity said on Monday.
The group, Doctors Without Borders, reported that many of its local staff members were afraid to work at refugee camps and medical centers in Rakhine State, where people injured in clashes need treatment for wounds from guns, knives, arrows and other weapons.
“I’ve never experienced this degree of intolerance,” Joe Belliveau, the operations manager for Doctors Without Borders, said by telephone. “What we really need is for people to understand that giving medical aid is not a political act.”
The violence dates to June, when long-simmering resentment toward Muslims, some of whom come from Bangladesh, erupted after Muslims were accused of the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl. More than 70,000 Muslims fled their homes; most remain in the refugee camps. Another spasm of violence late last month left 89 people dead and displaced an additional 35,000, according to the United Nations.
The initial fury was focused on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is widely reviled in Myanmar and that constitutes a large segment of the population in Rakhine, an impoverished state bordering Bangladesh. But now members of at least one other group, Kaman Muslims, have been forced from their homes, raising concerns that the violence could spread to other parts of Myanmar, where Muslims make up about 4 percent of the population.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported the widespread deployment of Myanmar security forces in Rakhine State, but also widespread fear there. “Our staff spoke to displaced people who shared their fears of being attacked again if the troops leave,” a spokesman for the office, Adrian Edwards, said in a press briefing on Friday.
Aid workers have reported severe malnutrition among children and widespread malaria. “There’s a huge group of people who have not been displaced but are cut off from health care,” Mr. Belliveau said.
But he said that posters and pamphlets threatening aid workers who treat Muslims were being distributed in Sittwe, the largest city in Rakhine, and that staffing in the area had been reduced to a few dozen people, from around 300 before the June violence. “Our own staff are simply scared and unwilling to work after receiving direct threats,” Mr. Belliveau said.
The difficulties facing international agencies in Rakhine underline the instability of the area — and the potential for further violence despite the security forces. Many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups are restive, presenting challenges for President Thein Sein as he leads the country out of decades of military dictatorship that justified its repressive grip in part by citing ethnic insurgencies.