Mizzima weekly journal editor Sein Win interviewed Mr Peter Paul de Groote, the Head of Mission in Burma of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Holland-based medical group which has suspended many of its activities in Rakhine State due to the “antagonism” its medical teams have faced from many residents in the deeply divided region.
The planned opening of a new MSF health center in state capital Sittwe is now in doubt after many Rakhine Buddhists protested.
Q: MFS activities have been compromised or suspended in Rakhine State since June. What are the impacts on the local communities?
A: The impact is quite large because we are only able to conduct a fraction of the work we were previously doing. We are able to reach some of our HIV/ AIDS patients and we have been resupplying some of our malaria field sites.
But then you have the violence which a few weeks ago left another 35,000 people displaced. At the moment we are simply unable to reach most people who require treatment for malaria, HIV/ AIDS, TB, reproductive health or mother and child healthcare.
Q: What is happening to those who cannot receive HIV/ AIDS treatment?
A: We can reach some of them, but not all. Neither can we offer medical consultations for those in need because there simply is not enough drugs to give to patients. We also need doctors on hand to care for the complications that inevitably arise with HIV/ AIDS patients.
Of course we are in difficult situation, but the patients are face with a much more difficult situation. They need help, they need treatment and they need care. And we can provide that if we are allowed to do our work.
Q: So what did people do—particularly those in the Buddhist Rakhine community—to force you to stop?
A: I think there are some people who think that we have taken sides. Clearly there are tensions between the two communities where we work. People think we have taken sides with one group, an allegation I can categorically deny. Every decision we make is based on medical needs and nothing else. We have no political affiliation. We don't look at ethnic lines, we only look at who is in need. We make all our decisions based on those facts. We hope that they [those who oppose us] can understand this, and will listen to us when we explain how we work in a very impartial and a very neutral way.
We would also like to ask for tolerance so that we can reach all those in need in both communities.
Q: you have worked in this region since 1994—how many patients have you treated?
A: I can tell you that in 2011 alone we made almost half a million medical consultations, which included some 75,000 malaria victims, 24,000 pregnant women, and about 600 HIV/ AIDS patients on our program.
Q: Many Rakhine [Buddhist] people I have spoken to believe the accusation that only 10 percent of treatment by NGOs, including MSF, is going to Rakhines while the majority goes to the Rohingya. What is your response to that?
A: We don't look at percentages. We only look at patients. We make our decisions based only on who is the most vulnerable, and the most in need medically. But this can vary between groups. For example, our malaria programs are in nine townships around Rakhine State—and probably the majority of patients treated are Rakhine. We don't make any distinction.
If someone walks in who has malaria or HIV or another disease, we never look to see or check if that person is a Rohingya or a Rakhine.
Q: What is the updated situation in the most critical areas?
A: Some of the areas, we don't know because we cannot access them. But we know that the people must be suffering just by the way they live and their livelihoods. It must have impacts on their health.
Q: What about your activities in Buthitaung, Maungdaw and other areas where Muslims or Rohingyas are in the majority?
A: Very little, but we have recently made some progress. We are reaching most of our HIV patients through our clinic in Buthitaung and we are reaching some of our TB patients in Maungdaw. But we are doing only able to treat a fraction of what we used to do.
There is a large group of people who are dependent on us for health care, but who have received nothing in the past five months. They have also had to endure the monsoon season without us.
So I wish I could say we were doing more. We are willing, we have the capacity, we just cannot get into those towns.
Q: What arrangements can be made so that your activities get back to normal?
A: We talk to everyone: we talk to the local communities, to the Rakhine State authorities, to anyone who plays a role. We want to engage and to explain what we want to do and why we want to do that. We want to tell them we are impartial, that we are neutral, that we are not part of any conflict, that we have no political agenda whatsoever.
The only thing we would like to do is to provide healthcare to those who need it.