Side Views

Patients, not politics, matter – Lauren Cooney

On November 2, yet more violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Two incidents between Muslim Rohingya and Kaman communities as well as Rakhine Buddhist communities resulted in two deaths and left five people wounded, two of whom later died in a hospital.

After receiving a phone call from the leaders of the camp for displaced people where the first incident took place, our Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medical teams transferred three injured Muslims to a hospital.

Later we heard about the second incident and were told that two injured Rakhine Buddhists had been transported to a hospital in Sittwe by a boat organized by their community, a referral we were not requested to support.

There is long-standing tension between ethnic Rakhine people, who make up the majority of the state’s population, and Muslims, many of whom are Rohingya and are regarded by the authorities as illegal immigrants.

Since the incidents, MSF has been accused — in media reports and through social media — of bias in favor of Muslim patients, and refusing to transfer the injured Rakhine patients.

Such accusations underscore the challenge of providing lifesaving health care in Rakhine state, where MSF is working by the request of the Myanmar government to provide health care to communities that its own Health Ministry finds difficult to reach. These challenges are largely a result of the hostility directed toward the ministry’s staff members, who have been threatened for trying to provide services to Muslim patients.

Among other services, MSF transports patients to hospitals in the absence of a government-provided ambulance — a service open to anybody who needs it, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or any other factor.

Following the violence on November 2, some within the Myanmar government have said that humanitarian assistance in Rakhine should be distributed on an equal basis because needs are the same across all communities.

While it is true that all communities in Rakhine have needs, those needs are very different. Muslim communities in Rakhine state have been cut off from fields, markets and government-provided services, with the exception of emergency health services at a single hospital. Many of them have been forced to leave their homes and are restricted to squalid camps situated on salt flats and rice paddies.

This situation has generated significant humanitarian needs among Muslim communities who suffer from inadequate provision of shelter and latrines, shortages of drinking water and intermittent health services that result in avoidable deaths and an increased likelihood of epidemics.

Rakhine Buddhist communities have also have had their lives disrupted by violence and the tension and fear that has followed, but have not been restricted in their movements and have a greater ability to access fields, markets and government services.

If providing medical care can ever be referred to as “biased”, it is a bias toward patients. It is a bias that is based on medical needs, regardless of any other factor. That has always been our organization’s key underlying principle and is one of the reasons why we have been able to work in some of the most challenging places in the world, providing health care to people who really need it, for more than 40 years.

The Myanmar government has requested support from international organizations in the form of both humanitarian and development assistance, including health care. With this request also comes a responsibility for authorities to explain to communities the role of these organizations, rather than to politicize the principles which guide our work.

The government and the communities of Rakhine should work together with international organizations to ensure that all patients in need of access to emergency medical services get the care that they need, regardless of their background. – Jakarta Post, November 13, 2013.

* Lauren Cooney is the operational manager for Myanmar for the international Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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