A small group of Rakhine buddhists has used threats to intimidate MSF's local staff working among the muslim Rohingya groups who've lost their homes, are vulnerable to disease and, in some cases, been injured in fighting.
Violence since June has now lead to more than one hundred thousand people being displaced and at least 112 deaths
Correspondent: Bill Bainbridge
Speaker: Joe Belliveau, MSF's Operational Manager
BELLIVEAU: What we're facing is a small group of people, it's a small minority, but it's a very vocal one, because of this very deep rift, this communal rift at the moment there's a certain number of people who don't want any support to go to the other side. And what they're saying is that even medical support, even medical care constitutes some kind of support to the other side. They have accused Medecins Sans Frontieres of playing favourites, of perhaps having an agenda towards assisting the other group, which of course we have no agenda whatsoever other than to provide healthcare to those who need it the most.
BAINBRIDGE: So these are Buddhist groups preventing you from providing healthcare to many of the Muslim people who've been displaced, the Rohingya people?
BELLIVEAU: Yes that's correct but when you say prevented, what's happening is that our staff have been receiving threats that are coming in various forms, whether it's through Facebook or letters or pamphlets or posters, accusing our staff and threatening them and telling them that they should not be working for an international organisation such as MSF, and should not be providing support to the other side. So our dilemma is not so much even getting access to certain places, we would like to access to be a bit more free, but the government has been reasonably open and allowing us to go to places. But our biggest problem is that we don't have the staff, the staff corps that are willing to work with us. So we're operating at a fraction of the capacity that we have and what we use to operate at.
BAINBRIDGE: And so what kind of injuries are you treating there? Is there any evidence of the widespread use of weapons in this conflict?
BELLIVEAU: I don't know about widespread, we have been seeing some people with burns and also with wounds from stabbings, arrows and a gunshot wound as well, at least one gunshot wound we've seen. But maybe it's useful to describe the crisis, from my point of view the crisis has three layers at the moment; first is the layer of people who have been recently affected, recently in the last couple of weeks, affected by violence, the burning of their villages, they've been displaced. The second group of people are those who were displaced after the violence in June, that's a group of about 75-thousand people who are still in camps who have not been able to go back to their homes and they're dependent on basically the aid that's provided by organisations or by the government. The third layer of the crisis are the people who were not displaced, perhaps many of them not directly affected by the violence that occurred in June, but because organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres are operating at a fraction of the level that they used to operate at, so tens of thousands of people are cut off from accessing medical care. So perhaps just to go back just a bit to the first layer that I described, which is the very most recent turn of events, so we've been having medical teams that have been able to go out, we visited just in the last few days 14 different sites, and by sites I mean little pockets ranging from a couple of hundred people up to about four-thousand people who have been recently displaced. What we've seen in these places are people sometimes living on the beach, sometimes they're living in the middle of a rice paddy on a little bit of raised up mud, sometimes they're hosted by communities of the same ethnic group, and these people, the children we've seen quite a few malnourished children, severely malnourished children, diarrhoea is a big problem, fever associated with malaria is a big problem as we approach the peak of the malaria season, maternal health is a big issue. We had one woman describe to us how when they were on the boat fleeing their village how her sister who was in late stages of pregnancy started haemorrhaging on the boat, and because there was nobody there to help her, no access to any kind of health service, she simply bled to death on the boat.
BAINBRIDGE: MSF has been working in Rakhine State for nearly 20 years. Did you always have the sense that there were these inter-communal tensions that were ready to erupt, or have these events since June have they taken you by surprise?
BELLIVEAU: We certainly like you said we've been working there an awful long time so it's no surprise that there's tensions between these communities. And we have felt at certain moments in time a certain level of hatred and we've heard the vitriolic words at times, we've felt the fear at times, but we were certainly not braced for something of this scale and this depth. I don't really see how Rakhine is going to quickly return to anything like it was before, not that it was great before by any stretch. It was already a crisis from our point of view, but it's much worse now and the divisions are much deeper and there doesn't seem that there's a clear way forward.
BAINBRIDGE: And for your staff to feel confident about re-entering the area, what needs to happen? Are you looking to the government to work to stop this intimidation?
BELLIVEAU: We're certainly calling for those groups, we've spent a lot of effort over the last weeks and months reaching out to different levels of Rakhine society, really sitting with the monks, sitting with the political leadership, with other community leaders, women's groups, just to talk to them and engage with them about how we do our work, what it means to be guided by the principle of impartiality and universal medical ethic. But there's a group that's a minority, but they still don't yet understand or accept that what we're doing is not political. That what we're doing is simply the delivery of healthcare services.