Biased aid? MSF negotiating full access in Myanmar

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 03 March 2014

A police checkpoint at a closed-off area with Muslim population in Myanmar. Medecins Sans Frontieres is no longer allowed to operate inside the country's Rakhine state, home to the vast majority of the Rohingya people. Photo by: Adam Jones / CC BY-SA

First get out, then please come back, but not all the way.

In a baffling government U-turn, Medecins Sans Frontieres was first ordered to cease operations in Myanmar and then allowed to resume their work — although not in Rakhine state, home to the vast majority of the Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic minority which the country’s Buddhist rulers refuse to grant full rights.

Despite the resumption of activities, the international medical organization remains concerned over the ban in Rakhine, and Devex learned they are currently engrossed in negotiations with the government to return to the state.

Whether that will happen or not anytime soon, however, remains to be seen — and MSF has refrained from divulging any more information on the matter to not jeopardize the ongoing talks.

The latest controversy involving foreign aid and the Rohingyas has not slipped the attention of several Western donors.

On Friday, following the government’s order, U.S. Agency for International Development Rajiv Shah raised the issue with the Myanmar government during his official visit to the country. USAID also supports several programs in Rakhine.

‘Biased’ aid groups?

Ethnic tensions between the Buddhist military and the Rohingyas have escalated in the last two years, and about 140,000 refugees live in camps in Myanmar and across the border in Thailand and Bangladesh, where human rights groups allege they are also discriminated.

Many Buddhists claim that foreign aid groups tend to be biased toward the Rohingyas. In fact, the government’s decision on Friday largely points to this.

Authorities accused MSF of “impartiality” in its aid efforts in Rakhine, with residents in the state capital arguing the organization’s aid is often lopsided in favor of the Rohingyas. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on Friday the organization’s presence in Rakhine “has more negative impact than benefit” and that it “could heighten tension and jeopardize peace and tranquillity in the region.”

MSF however insisted in a statement that their services “are provided based on medical need only, regardless of ethnicity, religion or any other factor.”

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About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.

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