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Myanmar must Immediately Allow Doctors without Borders (MSF) and All Humanitarian Aid Organizations to Resume Full Scale Operations in Rakhine State

By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights  •  June 26, 2014

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein is responsible for denying the Rohingya access to life-saving medical care, food and water, and creating conditions that could lead to genocide.

BANGKOK – ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) today joined with human rights activists around the world in a Global Day of Action to demand the Myanmar government immediately allow Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and all humanitarian aid organizations to resume full scale operations without restrictions and provide life-saving aid in Rakhine State.

Scores of people have died and hundreds of thousands remain at risk of disease and death in Western Myanmar since international aid organizations were banned from delivering life-saving treatments and medical assistance by the Myanmar authorities earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are being held in interment camps, forced from their homes and communities and segregated from the wider population by the Myanmar authorities for nearly two years now.

“The IDP camps in Rakhine State for Rohingya have been described as being more like concentration camps than refugee camps. Urgent medical and other aid and care is needed now to alleviate the immediate suffering and save the lives of tens of thousands of people,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, APHR President. “But this immediate aid must also be combined with a commitment from the Myanmar government to end segregation, provide protection, and return people to their homes and grant them the basic civil and political rights that allow them to live in dignity and safety.”

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights continues to urge ASEAN as a grouping and individual members states to work with the Myanmar government to ensure that immediate action is taken to address the root causes of the violence in Rakhine state and help mend community ties and alleviate the suffering and persecution of the Rohingya minority there. In particular, the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR) must urgently address the plight of the Rohingya and ASEAN’s regional commitment to ease their suffering, APHR said.

On today’s Global Day of Action, activists are amplifying their voices through social media to urge the Office of Myanmar’s President to prevent genocide and reinstate humanitarian aid. Activists are ‘storming’ Presidential Spokesman Ye Htut’s Twitter and Facebook pages using the hashtag #PreventGenocide to highlight the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis and the responsibility the President has to immediately fully restore life-saving humanitarian aid.

A party to the Genocide Convention, the Myanmar government has a responsibility to prevent genocide. The Convention’s definition of genocide includes acts that deliberately inflict on a group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”[1] In severely restricting their movement and denying them access to life-saving medical care, food, and water, the government is inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the destruction of the Rohingya in whole or in part.

On February 26, President Thein Sein banned Doctors Without Borders (aka Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from operating in Rakhine State. MSF, the state’s largest provider of medical care with 500 staff, served nearly 750,000 vulnerable people. The government’s ban deliberately stripped Rohingya of medical services as part of what is seen by many to be a wider plan to commit ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

The government first banned MSF, and now, several months later, almost 750,000 vulnerable people still have virtually no access to healthcare. Most of the afflicted are Rohingya who live in internment camps, akin to concentration camps, and isolated villages, virtual prisons, without freedom of movement. Within two weeks of the ban, at least 150 Rohingya had died, including more than 20 pregnant women experiencing life-threatening deliveries. These statistics only represent a small microcosm; the actual number of mortalities is likely to be much higher.

On March 27, the already perilous situation for Rohingya communities grew worse when Rakhine mobs began systematically attacking the homes and offices of foreign aid workers in Sittwe, Rakhine State’s capital. Protesters attacked over a dozen humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, UNICEF, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, and Malteser International.[2] Over 300 aid workers were forced to evacuate, and 1,000 had to stop working for an indeterminate period of time.[3]

Protesters carefully coordinated attacks in order to dismantle aid distribution mechanisms. Warehouses and supplies intended for Rohingya were destroyed. Boats, the only method to reach some isolated camps, particularly in the rainy season, have also been destroyed. Food and water deliveries were cut, with only a trickle allowed to resume under protracted government obstacles. Humanitarian aid organizations in Rakhine State are the difference between life and death for the vulnerable Rohingya population. Forced starvation and thousands more preventable deaths are looming. These are the precursors to genocide.[4]

International humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies operate under principles of medical neutrality and impartiality. These organizations provide care to people in need regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or religious beliefs. In contrast, medical operations run by the Myanmar government, whose security forces have directly participated in violence against Rohingya and enforced persecutory policies for decades, may not be following principles of medical neutrality.

Since the government banned MSF, many Rohingya have died of entirely preventable causes. The government continues to provide excuses, delays, and outright refusal in the cases of MSF and Malteser International, regarding the resumption of aid operations. During this time, there has been an alleged sharp increase in reported cases of mistreatment and deaths of Rohingya patients in Rakhine-run clinics. These include many alleged cases of pregnant women and their children being killed in Sittwe General Hospital. [5]

President Thein Sein must ensure the safe and immediate full-scale restoration of international humanitarian aid organizations operating in Rakhine State. The government must uphold its international legal obligations to prevent genocide and carry out its responsibility to protect Rohingya.  To do so, the Burmese government must immediately drop travel restrictions and travel authorization requirements on foreign and domestic aid workers and protect them from attacks, intimidation, and threats.

President Thein Sein should immediately ensure the resumption of all full-scale aid operations in Rakhine State and commit to a zero tolerance policy against violence. No person in Rakhine State, regardless of ethnicity or religion, should be forbidden access to desperately needed humanitarian care. Unless these trends are reversed, the Rohingya population will become even more vulnerable to genocide, the precursors of which are already firmly in place.

Media Contact:

[1] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 78 U.N.T.S. 277, Article 2(c), entered into force Jan. 12, 1951.

[2] Lawi Weng, Aid Workers Flee, Girl Killed as Attacks Continue in Sittwe, Irrawaddy, March 28, 2014,http://www.irrawaddy.org/Myanmar/aid-workers-flee-girl-killed-attacks-continue-sittwe.html.

[3] Myanmar: Humanitarian lifeline cut following violence against aid agencies in Rakhine, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Apr. 16, 2014, http://www.unocha.org/top-stories/all-stories/myanmar-humanitarian-lifeline-cut-following-violence-against-aid-agencies.

[4] Tom Andrews and Dan Sullivan, Marching to Genocide in Myanmar, United to End Genocide, Mar. 24, 2014,  http://endgenocide.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/marching-to-genocide-in-Myanmar.pdf.

[5] See, e.g., A Rohingya Woman with baby underwent Unexpected Death due to Poisonous Injection, March 17, 2014,  http://burmatimes.net/a-rohingya-woman-with-baby-underwent-unexpected-death-due-to-poisonous-injection/; Pregnant woman killed by nurses in Myanmar, World Bulletin, Apr. 11, 2014, http://www.worldbulletin.net/world/133527/italy-needs-eu-help-to-handle-tide-of-refugees-un-says.

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