Myanmar: Restrictions Severely Impacting Access to Health Care

Government-imposed restrictions on Muslim communities in Rakhine State are preventing tens of thousands of people from accessing health care and other basic services

YANGON, MYANMAR/NEW YORK, MAY 28, 2013—Nearly a year after interethnic clashes broke out in Myanmar's Rakhine State, government-imposed restrictions on Muslim communities are preventing tens of thousands of people from accessing health care and other basic services, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

An estimated 140,000 displaced people are living in makeshift camps after fleeing intercommunal violence. The vast majority are Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority community not recognized by the government of Myanmar as citizens. The government confines the Rohingya to the camps and severely restricts the movement of tens of thousands of others still living in their homes. The population is cut off from health facilities, food, markets, farming fields, and, in some cases, clean water.

"MSF has just returned from areas where whole villages are cut off from basic services," said Ronald Kremer, MSF emergency coordinator in Rakhine State. "What we have seen shows that current policies such as movement restrictions are having a detrimental impact on people's health. This includes tuberculosis patients unable to access the treatment they need to stay alive, and pregnant women dying unnecessarily because they have nowhere safe to deliver."

Restrictions on the movement of Muslims were first imposed in townships around the state capital Sittwe in June 2012 following the first clashes, and intensified after further violence in October. Residents have described to MSF the burdensome impact of the restrictions on their everyday activities.

"We are only able to get to our farms very occasionally, and then only two or three of us at a time, and with military escorts," said a man in Myebon township. "We cannot go to the hospital, to school, to fish, to collect firewood. Sometimes we just want to die.”

In other areas, people are simply too scared to move. In one village, residents told MSF staff that they stopped leaving their village after being assaulted as many as 14 times. Three residents died after they were unable to reach the hospital for treatment for urgent medical conditions.

Displaced people are particularly vulnerable as the monsoon season begins. While the recent Tropical Storm Mahasen did not have the devastating impact that was forecast, the risks posed by further tropical storms or cyclones remain high, particularly for people living in makeshift shelters.

"This fear is so pervasive that even when people were living in the path of Tropical Storm Mahasen, many told us they were too scared to move," Kremer said. "They did not know where they would be moved to, or what would happen to them."

The Myanmar government should ensure that displaced people, and those cut off from services, have proper shelter and access to health care and are able to move freely, without fear of attack, MSF said.

MSF has been providing health care in Myanmar since 1992 to millions of people from many ethnic origins. Across Myanmar, MSF provides more than 28,000 people living with HIV/AIDS with lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment. It was among the first responders to cyclones Nargis and Giri, providing medical assistance, survival items, and clean water sources for tens of thousands of people.

MSF has worked for the past 20 years in Rakhine State, providing primary and reproductive health care as well as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis treatment. Prior to June 2012, MSF conducted approximately 500,000 medical consultations each year. Since 2005, MSF has treated more than 1.2 million people from all ethnic groups in Rakhine State for malaria.