Written by Staff Writer
Jakarta, Indonesia (CNN) — Myanmar security forces arrested 18 medical staff, including seven international aid workers, last week and charged them with violating a law that bans health workers from working in areas “infected by viruses, or by organisms deemed to have harmful effects on health.”
They were all also charged with violating the Foreign Personnel Act of 1971, which bans foreigners from living, teaching or working in Myanmar.
Joining them in the detention were five other foreign aid workers who worked in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state and had been living in Thailand, including three volunteers from the United States. Three local aid workers were also arrested, but have since been released.
International aid groups operating in Myanmar, a country that borders Bangladesh and China, are pushing for their release and protection.
“The welfare of the Rohingya and other communities living in Rakhine state remains a major concern to those who have worked with survivors of this conflict and the international community at large,” said Richard Horsey, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Myanmar representative.
A Maungdaw police commander told CNN the arrests were made after a tip-off that they were treating Muslims without proper permission.
Most members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state are denied citizenship by Myanmar’s government, which denies them citizenship. The group is often referred to as “Bengalis” because many Rohingya moved to Rakhine state decades ago without documents.
Police believe the foreign aid workers were carrying out medical interventions and repatriation to Rohingyas who had been displaced by recent violence in the state.
Stigma against the Rohingya – which does not include many Rohingyas who’ve lived in Myanmar for generations – has become so pervasive that many in the Rakhine state see them as outcasts.
That violent climate stems in part from the fact that Muslim-majority Myanmar refuses to officially refer to the Rohingya as its own people. Calls to change the language have been rejected by the government.
“They (the arrested aid workers) were working for specific organizations and they were traveling throughout the region to offer assistance to the local community which includes the state of Rakhine and the estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas,” security forces Commander Maung Aye told CNN.
“When we checked the details of the facilities and the aid workers, we found the details that weren’t registered.”
“We respect Myanmar laws and regulations and we work with relevant offices to comply with the laws,” an official from Oxfam told CNN. “We believe that they acted in a professional manner and should not have been detained.”
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