Updated: 03/01/2014 02:10 | By Agence France-Presse

Myanmar orders MSF to 'cease all activities' in the country

Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Friday said the Myanmar government had ordered it to suspend all its activities in the country, halting vital healthcare to thousands of people.


Myanmar orders MSF to 'cease all activities' in the country

Myanmar protesters hold placards and shout slogans during a rally against the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) aid agency in Sittwe, Rakhine state, on February 22, 2014

MSF, which provides primary healthcare in strife-torn western Rakhine state as well as HIV and tuberculosis treatments across the country, said the move would have a "devastating effect" on its patients.

"MSF is deeply shocked by this unilateral decision and extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of patients currently under our care across the country," the group said in a statement, adding it was in discussions with the government to resume services.

It said that clinics across the country were closed Friday for the first time in the aid group's 22-year history in the country.

"There is no other medical non-government organisation that operates at the scale of MSF with the experience and infrastructure to deliver necessary life-saving medical services," MSF said.

Myanmar's health service has been left in tatters after decades of underfunding during a military dictatorship that was replaced by a quasi-civilian regime in 2011.

MSF, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, is the largest provider of treatment for HIV and AIDS in Myanmar, with over 30,000 patients across the country.

It provides primary healthcare services in several remote areas near the border with Bangladesh where impoverished stateless Rohingya Muslim communities live under severe restriction of movement.

MSF has faced increasing pressure in recent weeks after it said it treated injured people in its clinic near the site of a reported mass killing of Rohingya that was strongly denied by the government.

The organisation, which has faced accusations of giving preferential treatment to the stateless Rohingya, said it "guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality".

MSF also has programmes for the treatment of tuberculosis and malaria as well as reproductive health services.

- Call for humanitarian access -

The United States Embassy in Yangon called for free humanitarian access in the former junta-ruled nation earlier Friday.

"The United States encourages (Myanmar) to continue to work with the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to communities in need and to ensure unfettered access for humanitarian agencies, in accordance with international standards," it said.

"Free, regular, and open access is essential to ensure the benefits of humanitarian activities are delivered appropriately to all people of Rakhine State."

MSF has halted work in Rakhine state since Wednesday because its operating licence has expired, regional government spokesman Win Myaing told AFP earlier, adding the group "might resume their work again".

He denied the move was connected to recent protests against the aid group.

Rakhine remains tense after several outbreaks of inter-communal violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities since 2012 that have killed scores and displaced 140,000 people, mainly from the Rohingya minority.

The United Nations in January said it had "credible information" of a series of attacks that left dozens of men, women and children dead with the alleged involvement of police.

Myanmar, whose sweeping political reforms have been overshadowed by religious bloodshed, has vociferously denied civilians were killed but said a police officer was presumed dead after a clash.

The government has launched its own investigation into the incident, which is due to release its report imminently.

Last week the UN's rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, raised "serious concerns" over the impartiality of that probe.

Myanmar's government considers the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in the country to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and view them with hostility.

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