By THE EDITORIAL BOARD of The New York Times
A cynical decision by Myanmar to ban Doctors Without Borders from the state of Rakhine has left some 750,000 people without medical care since Feb. 28. About 150 people, including women with difficult pregnancies, are estimated to have died since the ban was imposed.
Myanmar acted after the group, which has provided medical care in Rakhine State since 1994, reported treating 22 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority for gunshot wounds and other injuries after an attack by a Buddhist mob in January. A United Nations investigation concluded that up to 40 men, women and children were killed in the rampage, which Myanmar denies took place.
If the goal in kicking Doctors Without Borders out of Rakhine State, and depriving hundreds of thousands of people of their only source of medical care, is to prevent foreign witnesses to the human rights violations in the region, it is a badly calculated strategy.
The Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar for generations, have long been persecuted. In 1982, they were stripped of their citizenship and restrictions were placed on their right to travel within Myanmar or own property.
The government prevents Muslims from seeking medical help outside their villages, and Doctors Without Borders had been the only way for a pregnant woman facing a difficult delivery to get a referral to a government hospital, the group said.
As radical Buddhist leaders such as Ashin Wirathu have preached hatred against the Muslim minority, and incited more Buddhist mobs to attack Rohingyas since 2011, as many as 75,000 Rohingya have fled the country and thousands have been driven from their homes.
Anti-Rohingya fervor has swelled as Myanmar prepares for its first nationalcensus this month and next. Rakhine officials fear that if Rohingyas are allowed to acknowledge their ethnicity, an honest accounting will show that there are far more of them than the current estimate of 1.3 million.
Loath to slow Myanmar’s progress toward becoming a more open society, Western governments and international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations have been reluctant to antagonize Myanmar’s government. But attacks against the Rohingya have reached a point where Myanmar must be held to account.
Fortunately, the United Nations says it is seriously negotiating with Myanmar’s government to let Doctors Without Borders resume its work. The government has responded that the group may work everywhere else in the country. This is not acceptable. Myanmar must immediately let Doctors Without Borders resume its work in Rakhine State before more people die.