Dr. Hervé Isambert, MSF program manager
Prevented from working, the French Section of MSF leaves Myanmar
The French section of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has ended its medical programs in Myanmar (Burma). Dr. Hervé Isambert, MSF program manager, explains the reasons for the departure.
March 30, 2006
What type of work was the French section of MSF doing in Myanmar?
Since 2001, we have run a medical program to treat malaria in the states of Mon and Karen, a region affected by an armed conflict between the Burmese army and rebel groups. We chose to work in the conflict area because, from a humanitarian perspective, the people living there are particularly vulnerable. They are exposed to violence and are deprived of health care. Malaria is one of the primary causes of death in this region.
Why did we decide to end our programs in the country?
We had to face up to the facts: the Myanmar authorities do not want independent, foreign organizations to be close to the populations they want to control. The authorities don't want anyone to witness how they organize the forced displacement of the population, the burning of villages, and forced recruitment. In 2001, we thought the regime was easing up and, indeed, until 2004, we did have access to those regions and could work under acceptable conditions. But in 2004, the regime's hardliners regained control, taking a radical position with respect to the rebellions and, as a result, to the humanitarian workers in the regions where the rebels are active. Today, we have to acknowledge that it was incredulous to think that room existed for a humanitarian organization to work there. We have concluded that it is impossible to assist people living in these conflict areas given the conditions required to carry out independent humanitarian action. Our teams had no freedom to travel, we had less and less direct contact with the people we had come to help, we were unable to follow up our field activities, etc, etc.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
It means that our opportunities to work and get out into the field continued to shrink. First, local authorities prohibited us from traveling within the affected areas. In October 2004, the authorization we had just received to work in Ye district was suddenly withdrawn. Ye district is one of the areas most affected by malaria in Mon state. Between November 2004 and February 2005, nearly all of our activities in Karen state were blocked. In the end, it even became impossible to exchange medical data on epidemics with local health authorities given the pressure they faced from the military, which forbid the distribution of any information. The measures became even stricter in mid-2005 when the ministry imposed complicated procedures for obtaining visas–with delays becoming longer and longer–and for permission for international staff to travel between the capital and these border states. The space for working just kept on shrinking until there was none left. It goes without saying that the people are the ones who suffer the consequences of the hardening of the regime.
What about the other sections of MSF (Swiss and Dutch) and other aid organizations working in Myanmar?
The other MSF sections also face serious problems in accessing the population in the regions they work in, and they wonder about the future of their projects. Concerning the MSF AIDS program in Rangoon, the Myanmar doctors working with us are subject to administrative harassment, but the project managers feel they can still provide quality care to their patients without making unacceptable compromises with the authorities.
In December, the ICRC ended its programs with prisoners because the conditions imposed–that a pro-government agent accompany their teams–had become unacceptable. We weren't the first to reach this conclusion.
For humanitarian organizations, the issue is to recognize when our role has been reduced to being a technical service provider of the Myanmar authorities, subject to their political agenda and no longer to the goals that we have set for ourselves as a humanitarian organization. Speaking for the French section's programs, we believe that we have crossed that line. It is with a great bitterness that we have had to decide to leave the country.