The humanitarian medical group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, has been ordered to stop all work in Myanmar, the group says.
MSF was "ordered by the Union Government of Myanmar to cease all activities in the country", the group said in a statement. "MSF is deeply shocked by this unilateral decision and extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of patients currently under our care across the country."
Earlier in the day, reports emerged that MSF's operations had been suspended only in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, on the grounds that it is biased towards the minority Muslim Rohingya.
MSF denies any bias. In its statement e-mailed to the media, it said: "MSF's actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality."
But reports quoted presidential spokesman Ye Htut as telling reporters in Naypyidaw yesterday: "Since late 2011, the operations of MSF have been less transparent. They even hired Bengalis. Even the minister of health and the state government warned the organisation several times."
Analysts say the highly regarded MSF, which won a Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian medical work around the world, has become a victim of bitter local divisions that made it a liability for the government.
"The last thing the government wants is to create more problems," said a Yangon-based analyst who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the Rakhine state issue. "They will be blamed, but they have avoided a potential conflict. There was too much opposition to MSF locally."
The Rohingya are not listed among Myanmar's 135 official ethnic minorities. They are widely viewed as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Local Buddhist Rakhines see them as bent on taking over the land and Islamising the Buddhist-majority state. This view is widely shared among the Buddhist Burman public, and has been fanned by right-wing nationalist groups such as the recently emerged 969 movement.
In Rakhine state, which is underfunded and whose medical resources are stretched, and where there are many cases of discrimination against Rohingya, MSF helped fill a vital gap in emergency and public health care.
Since June 2012, more than 100,000 Muslim Rohingya have been driven from their homes by Rakhine Buddhists in violent attacks, and they live in dire conditions inside squalid camps. Even without the conflict, the state is the second-poorest in Myanmar.
But in the highly charged atmosphere of animosity, Buddhist Rakhines resent what they insist is humanitarian agencies' bias towards the Rohingya.
Protests have targeted the United Nations and international non-governmental organisations. Agencies have rejected accusations of bias, pointing out that most of the people in most need are the Rohingya, so it is only logical that more attention is being paid to them.
Things came to a head last month, however, over an apparently bloody incident in Duchiyartan in Rakhine state, which remains shrouded in confusion. Reports from the area said a police officer had disappeared and was presumed to have been killed - by Rohingya - and that almost 50 Rohingya had been massacred by Rakhine mobs.
The government said there was no such massacre. Delegations visiting the area have come away with little or no real evidence, but are still privately convinced that killings took place. Locals have spoken of Rohingya men gone missing. The government has set up its own inquiry - but blamed agencies such as MSF for alleged false reporting.
Public pressure has mounted since. Rakhines staged protests against MSF every day from Feb 22 to Tuesday, demanding that the organisation be kicked out.
"MSF has done a great job, but is perceived as biased by the Rakhine community," a Yangon-based analyst told The Straits Times. "MSF became the victim because it was operating in a highly polarised society. In such a situation, no matter what amount of goodwill one shows in theory and in practice, a slight misperception will drag the organisation down."
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