Doctors Without Borders is being forced to stop caring for sick people in a Myanmar state torn by sectarian violence, in a move linked to the humanitarian group's work with the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, reports said Friday.
Myanmar's presidential spokesman Ye Htut told the Myanmar Freedom newspaper that the group's contract in Rakhine state would not be extended because they hired "Bengalis," the term the government uses for Rohingya, and lacked transparency in its work.
He criticized the group over its handling of patients following an attack in the remote northern part of the state last month. The government has vehemently denied allegations that a Buddhist mob rampaged through a village, killing women and children.
Doctors Without Borders said it treated 22 injured and traumatized Rohingya. The United Nations says more than 40 Rohingya were killed, but the government says only one Buddhist policeman died.
Ye Htut told 7 Day newspaper that the group's "presence has more negative impact than benefit" and that its contract was not renewed because the group's work "could heighten tension and jeopardize peace and tranquility in the region."
Attempts to reach Ye Htut for comment Friday were unsuccessful. The international aid organization, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and is also known by the French initials MSF, had no immediate comment.
The United States expressed concern about the reports, and urged Myanmar's government "to ensure unfettered access for humanitarian agencies, in accordance with international standards," an embassy official said.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule. Since then, ethnic tensions have swept Rakhine state, raising concerns from the United States and others that the bloodshed could undermine democratic reforms. Up to 280 people have been killed and tens of thousands more have fled their homes, most of them Rohingya.
Since the violence erupted in June 2012, Doctors Without Borders has worked in 15 camps for the displaced people in Rakhine state. For many of the sickest patients, the organization offers the best and sometimes only care, because traveling outside the camps for treatment in local Buddhist-run hospitals can be dangerous and expensive. The aid group has worked to help smooth the referral process for emergency transport from some camps.
Due to increasing threats and intimidation from a group of Rakhine Buddhists who have been holding near daily protests against Doctors Without Borders, the organization has said its activities have been severely hampered and that it has not received enough government support.
The group has been present for nearly 20 years in Rakhine state, assisting with everything from child and maternal health to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria among all ethnic groups, including Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
Nationwide, it has long filled a gap in Myanmar's neglected and woefully underfunded health sector. It is the main provider of HIV drugs in the country, supplying more than 30,000 patients with life-saving medication that would otherwise be unavailable through the government. It also treats more than 3,000 tuberculosis patients, many of whom are also infected with HIV.