The medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders has been forced to stop caring for sick people in a Myanmar state torn by sectarian violence after the humanitarian group's license was suspended by the government over the group's work with the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, local media reported 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 it hired "Bengalis," the term the government uses for the Rohingya, and because it lacked transparency in its work.
He also 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, but Doctors Without Borders said it treated 22 injured and traumatized Rohingya.
The United Nations says more than 40 Rohingya were killed in the attack, but the government says only one Buddhist policeman died.
Htut told 7 Day newspaper that the group's "presence has more negative impact than benefit" and that its contract was not renewed because its work "could heighten tension and jeopardize peace and tranquillity in the region."
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 Embassy in the capital, Yangon, expressed concern 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 U.S. 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 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.
Because of increasing threats and intimidation from a group of Rakhine Buddhists who have been holding near-daily protests against Doctors Without Borders, the organization said its activities have been severely hampered and that it has not received enough government support.
The group has been present in Rakhine state for nearly 20 years, 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 lifesaving medication that would otherwise be unavailable through the government.
In its annual global report on human rights, the U.S. State Department on Friday identified the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Rakhine state as one of the most pressing issues facing the country as it tries to implement economic and political reforms.
Authorities have "made no meaningful efforts to help Rohingya and other Muslim minority people displaced by violence to return to their homes and continued to enforce disproportionate restrictions on their movement," the report said.
Many of the country's 1.3 million Rohingya — identified by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world — have been living in the country for generations, but the government insists they are there illegally. Almost all have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. Systematic and discriminatory policies limit their freedom of movement, access to health care, and right to worship and have children.