Sadly I am here on the ground in Burma watching a tragedy unfold that is threatening the lives of tens of thousands of the most persecuted people on earth – the Rohingya ethnic minority in Rakhine State.
Late last week the government of Burma announced that the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate organization, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), was to terminate all of its operations in the country. Their clinics were closed on Friday.
United to End Genocide called on the United States and international community to strongly condemn this outrage and immediately exert pressure on the government to reverse this diabolical decision. Apparently international pressure (the source of the pressure that did the trick is not exactly clear) had an impact as the government announced over the weekend that it will allow all MSF clinics to re-open today except where there is the greatest need – Rakhine State – where more than 90,000 Rohingya are effectively imprisoned in what they aptly describe as “concentration camps”.
I visited these camps last week and saw the conditions. Nearly 40,000 of those imprisoned there escaped on rickety boats last year. Many drowned. Others ended up being trafficked to work on rubber plantations. Or worse. I was told by many that their fate was preferable to the hell that they were enduring. The rate of those risking their lives in rickety boats now is double what it was last year. “The police do not stop those who are setting off on boats”, I was told. “We cannot leave our camp except on a boat.”
Several told me that the international community – particularly the United States – was their only hope. “If America will not help us”, I was told by several of the camp residents, “please at least bomb our camps and end it.”
Yesterday, I traveled to a village outside of Yangon to a clinic serving AIDS patients who are alive because of medication from MSF. It was a heartbreaking experience.
“The whole family will not survive”
Ei Ei Phyo, 32, sat beside her one-and-a-half year old daughter Nadi who slept as we talked. Ei Ei, her daughter and her husband all have AIDS and all depend on the treatment that they receive from MSF. “If MSF stops distributing the medicine, the whole family will not survive”, she said. Her husband has one week’s worth of medicine left, she has a two month supply and Nadi has three. We cannot get the medicine from anywhere else if MSF stops distribution.”
“Were you afraid when you heard that the government is expelling MSF from Burma?”, I asked. “Yes”, she replied, “ We are worried. We can’t even sleep,”
The man who runs the AIDS clinic explained that those who had come for their medicine were told that they would need to return on Monday. The explanation that the bewildered and frightened patients received was that the government had ordered MSF to stop their activities “due to some Rakhine state problem”.
“The patients were very much shaken by the knowledge that the supply of medicine is going to be disrupted. HIV patients need to take their medicine twice a day and they cannot afford to miss a single dose as this will be fatal”, he explained. “I am not sure where the alternative location to draw the medicine is.”
It turns out that they are the lucky ones. Because of the outcry and pressure on the government, their medication from MSF will not be cut off.
But that leaves the Rohingya in Rakhine in similar conditions without medicine and without hope. For many, the decision to deny them health care – that is there and readily available – is a death sentence.
Why is this happening?
MSF is guilty of telling the truth about what they saw and did following a massacre in northern Rakhine State in January. MSF staff told a reporter that they had treated twenty-two patients – members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority – that were clearly victims of a violent attack. They were treated near the site of where the attack occurred. The problem is that the government still contends that no massacre happened, that not a single Rohingya was hurt and that MSF made it all up. The UN has reported that at least forty were killed. I was told during my visit there last week that there were even more.
The other reason given by the Burmese government for shutting MSF down, according the President’s spokesperson, is that MSF “favors” the Rohingya not only in providing treatment but also hiring members of the ethnic group as local staff. “They are biased”, the government claimed.
There is actually another very dire consequence to the shutdown of MSF in Rakhine – visibility. A person very close to the situation in Rakhine believes that this is step one to eliminating witnesses. Witness to what? “The violence that is coming.”
The forcing of MSF out of Rakhine could be the first step in targeting of foreigners. As it is now, it is virtually impossible to get access to the more remote camps. Many believe that the massacre in northern Rakhine in January is not an isolated case – just one that got exposed by a clinical staff worker who told the truth. Now the problem is being addressed by making sure that there are no more witnesses who are able and willing to talk.
What is also clear is that there are few, if any, domestic sources of pressure on the government, including that of Aung San Suu Kyi on this unfolding tragedy.Virtually everyone I spoke with believes that while dark as things are now here in Burma for the Rohingya, darker days lie ahead, particularly in the run up to the elections of 2015.
I have decided to fly back to Rakhine today and will meet with people who are in the cross-hairs of this monstrous government policy – patients who have been cut off from health care that they need to survive. My plan is to interview them, take photos and return to Yangon where I am seeking a meeting with the Minister of Health. I will appeal for the policy to be reversed and show him the faces of those who will die if it is not.
We will make it clear that if nothing is done, they will have blood on their hands. At the very least, the victims in Rakhine will not die in obscurity.