Myanmar’s Rakhine Lawmakers Mull Shutting Down Unregistered NGOs

Myanmar’s Rakhine state legislature is to consider a plan to shut down unregistered nongovernmental organizations operating in the restive state following the expulsion last week of international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Nearly 70 NGOs have applied to work in Rakhine since deadly violence broke out in 2012 between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas, leaving the region mired in a humanitarian crisis, but only 15 international and four domestic groups have been approved.

Many NGOs operate in Rakhine without formal registration, and therefore illegally, either because they chose to bypass the red tape required to obtain permission or because officials have looked the other way while the groups provide much-needed services to the region.

More than 200 people have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless since the communal clashes erupted, and authorities in the Rakhine majority state have recently suggested that NGOs, like MSF, have provided “preferential treatment” to Rohingyas, who rights groups say suffered the biggest casualties.

On Friday, Aung Win, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), submitted a proposal at a session of the state legislature that would officially remove unregistered NGOs from the region to prevent them from “causing bigger problems” between the two communities and giving Myanmar “a bad image.”

“The proposal I am submitting is to stop the work of INGOs and NGOs that are not registered to operate in Rakhine state,” Aung Win told his colleagues.

“We have had several riots in the last two years between ethnic Rakhines and Bengalis who have invaded Rakhine state. Because of those riots, INGOs and NGOs have entered Rakhine state with a variety of purposes,” he said.

The government describes the estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims as Bengalis, saying they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh although many have lived in the country for generations. The U.N. says they are among the world's most persecuted minorities.

“Among those organizations, there are some INGOs and NGOs that have caused bigger problems between the two communities, and some are creating a bad image of the country. Also, we have seen some organizations act disrespectfully to the local people,” Aung Win said.

His proposal was approved by Rakhine legislative chief Htein Win, who set March 11 for debate on the issue.

Aung Myat Kyaw, another RNDP lawmaker, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that NGOs operating within Rakhine state must adhere to the law.

“There have been only some good results from unregistered NGOs and INGOs working in the state because they are operating illegally,” he said.

“The best way to carry out any work is to work according to law. There are many possibilities for bigger problems between the two communities because of the illegal work done by INGOs or NGOs in Rakhine State.”

MSF resumes work

The Myanmar government on Feb. 27 ordered Paris-based Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) to halt all its operations in the country, accusing it of giving “preferential treatment” to Rohingyas, among other reasons.

Following criticism from foreign governments and rights groups, the ban on MSF was confined only to Rakhine state, where it has provided primary health care to people in camps displaced by violence and in the region’s isolated villages.

After holding talks with the government in Naypyitaw on Feb. 28, MSF said it would be permitted to resume operations, including HIV/AIDS work and other activities in Kachin and Shan states, as well as the Yangon region.

“Whilst we are encouraged by this and will resume these activities for now, MSF remains extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of vulnerable people in Rakhine state who currently face a humanitarian medical crisis,” said the group, which had served in Myanmar for 22 years.

Prior to the suspension, MSF said, it had carried out a variety of activities in nine townships across Rakhine state, “treating anyone who was unable to access the medical care they required.”

In addition to primary care, the group provided referrals for patients that required emergency secondary hospital care, and family planning and care for pregnant women and newborn babies.

MSF maintains that its workers have not provided preferential treatment to any specific group of people.

“All MSF services are provided based on medical need only, regardless of ethnicity, religion or any other factor,” it said.

Since 2004, MSF said it had treated over 1,240,000 malaria patients in Rakhine state alone, where the disease is particularly endemic.

The group said it will continue to hold dialogue with the government with the aim of resuming operations throughout Myanmar.

Reported by Min Theing Aung and Nay Myo Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.