'Cautious' MSF resumes operations in Rakhine

Children smile and wave to the camera in Rakhine, Myanmar. Médecins Sans Frontières has resumed its operations in the conflict-torn state. Photo by: Evangelos Petratos / ECHO / CC BY-ND

International medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières announced earlier this week that it has resumed operations in Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine state. This comes nine months after the government suspended the group’s operations, which officials alleged were biased in favor of Rakhine's Muslim Rohingya minority.

“We welcome the decision, of course,” Simon Tyler, deputy head of mission of the group in Myanmar, told Devex. “We will continue to speak with the authorities and the communities on the next steps and where we will be needed.”

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning group was asked to stop countrywide operations in February 2014 — a decision that was somehow softened a month later, when the government lifted the ban except in Rakhine. The state is considered the second-poorest region in Myanmar and home to a vast majority of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Up to that point, MSF had been working in the Southeast Asian nation — including in Rakhine — for more than 20 years, helping million of people in the country fight diseases like malaria and HIV, as well as gain access to basic and reproductive health care.

“Obviously, there was the perceived bias toward one particular group,” Tyler said. “That's obviously something that was questioned a few times, something that we, as an organization continue to deny.”

Tensions have been running high between the Rohingya minority and the Buddhist majority for several years now. The conflict has displaced more than 140,000 people — most of whom live in refugee camps in the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh. Several international organizations, including the United Nations, have sharply criticized the government for “allowing” these incidents to happen.

Moving forward ‘cautiously’

Although the official announcement only came this week, the medical group has quietly resumed operations in Rakhine in December 2014 — mainly to test the waters and allow space for normal operations to resume. Tyler stressed, however, that not everything will go back to the way it was.

“We won't automatically return to places of previous operations. We will receive advice from the [Ministry of Health], they are the ministry and we work with them, and we will continue to do so,” he shared. “There are locations that we have reengaged in and there are locations that there are still needs, [but] that's not to say we have gone back to working in every place we've listed.”

The MSF official shared that prior to the lifting of the ban, there were intense but “constructive” negotiations between the group, the government and the communities they work in. While it is too early to say, he said that this renewed dialogue with different stakeholders will allow them to “hopefully reach out and re-engage with a little more focus.”

Tyler, who has been in the country for a little more than 18 months, said that in delicate situations such as the environment in Rakhine, three things are important: communication, openness and transparency.

“You have to remember a year ago, the environment was very different than now. There were a lot of very different reactions to the displacements and the communities,” he concluded. “It requires a stronger and more practical communication line [to operate] and we will ensure openness and transparency in every step of the way. We did these in the past, but we'll definitely do so [more] in the future.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.