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War on Humanitarian Concern

Virus and Violence

Kanbawza Win

It seems that the Burmese regime has declared war on Humanitarian Concern especially to AIDS/HIV patients. The latest pressure came from the chairman of Thaketa (10) South, Ward No 2 chairman Mya Thaung, who not only refused them the permission to register as guests but also humiliated one Khin Maung Oo in public for contracting AIDS and intimidated him. In Rangoon ’s South Dagon Township , authorities have issued a letter to Phyu Phyu Thin, because she tried to organize a Buddhist ceremony (Hsoon Thut) for HIV/AIDS patients on their last journey.

It seems paradoxical that at a time, when the AIDS Conference in Toronto was just completed and the civilized international community was brainstorming of how to alleviate this suffering, Burma , instead of helping these unfortunate patients is bent of harassing them so that they may passed out quickly from this earth. Are the Generals human beings at all? Even, if they are homo sapiens they doesn't seem to have an organ call heart because no human will do such inhuman act. Perhaps they have done this unearthly act because they still want another record to be in Guinness Books of Records, as the first government in the world to harass the dying AIDS patient, being not satisfied with the record of arresting the youngest prisoner of conscious in the world (a three day old baby was taken prisoner because her father ran away when the security come to arrest him in Pegu some years ago).

At first, this AIDS disease was a "Hush Hush" affairs when the Junta gave a secret order to kill, the women sex workers infected with AIDS coming back from Thailand , especially in Ranong area. Many had been killed with lethal injection as if to appear that they died while taking treatment. The rationale behind is because there was not a single AID/HIV during the Burmese Socialist days and when the Junta opened up the country in 1988, Lady AIDS came in and the people label it as Na Wa Ta (meaning  SLORC, State Law and Order Restoration Council)) disease. May be that is one of the reasons of changing the name from SLORC to the current SPDC. But the real reason is that the soldiers of Burmese army which has been using rape as a weapon of war in its ethnic cleansing policy has contracted AIDS/HIV. Unofficial figures cited is that there are about 400,000 plus soldiers are infected with HIV positive that comes to 12% of the entire army are tested positive. Perhaps this is one way of the ethnic resistance paying back this Mudane Tatmadaw meaning rapist Burmese army.

The UN describes as one of Asia's most serious epidemics and in the late 80s and through 90s the regime dismissed warnings of an impending HIV/Aids epidemic as politically motivated, arguing that Burmese society's "impeccable morals" would protect it. Western donors, frustrated by the generals' obstinacy on Aids and political reform, said there was little they could do to help a pariah regime.

But over the last several years the generals appear to have woken up to the dimensions of the epidemic and its potentially devastating impact. And while western countries remain aggrieved by the military's refusal to ease its oppressive rule, donors are pouring money into the battle. Burma has little time to lose. Of its 50m people, UNAIDS estimates that about 330,000 - and maybe as many as 620,000 - are infected with the virus. Adult HIV prevalence is estimated at 1.2 per cent, a generalized epidemic, and the virus is known to have spread widely. Treatment options in Burma are almost non-existent for most and prevention remains the priority. Condoms, once confiscated as evidence of prostitution and subject to advertising bans, are now widely available thanks to organizations such as US-based Population Services International (PSI), which distributes heavily subsidized condoms. In 2003, sales of PSI condoms, retailing at about 1 cent, hit 18.5m; by 2008 it hopes they will reach 50m. Now it can be seen selling at the roadside shop.

The Burmese Generals who used to joke about Thailand as Phar Naing Ngan (prostitute country) is forced to accept condone donations from Thailand . It has  donated one million baht (US$24,900) to help fight the disease in Burma and the Generals have to eat a humble pie by listening patiently listen to the lecture by the Thai minister who warned that HIV/AIDS is among the biggest problems on the border and asked everyone along the frontier to use condoms. The strain of HIV prevalent in Burma is probably similar to that found in neighboring Thailand , which is relatively easily spread by sexual contact. Burma , however, has preferred to deny that promiscuity and commercial sex thrive in a Buddhist society. Some of the current counter-measures are actually counter-productive. Heroin-takers and prostitutes are simply put in jail. The Burmese military Junta is sadly a government of concealment.

In Burma , only two hospitals have AIDS wards, and few citizens can afford the average $300-a-month cost of anti-retroviral. Many observers blame Burma 's dire situation on a military government that has allowed the nation's health care system to decay and that practically ignored AIDS until last year. The World Health Organization ranked Burma 190 out of 191 member countries in 2000, above only Sierra Leone . Burma 's life expectancy is 55 years, while the rest of Asia 's is 63. Because the regime tightly controls information, no one knows how many Burmese are HIV-positive. UNAIDS estimated 400,000 people were infected by the end of 2001 - just under 1 percent of those ages 15-49. The Junta has long insisted the real numbers are much lower because they say Burmese culture stresses abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterward. The state AIDS campaigns have urged monogamy and fidelity while excluding the discussion of condoms or clean needles for drug addicts. However, a 1999 study by Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health who worked with the WHO in Burma , suggests that 687,000 Burmese, or nearly 3.5 percent of adults, are HIV-positive. According to UNAIDS, heterosexuals account for 57 percent of HIV infections in Burma , followed by drug users at 22 percent. Tainted blood donations account for 4 percent; homosexual transmission for 1.2 percent; and the cause of the remaining 13.5 percent was unknown.

HIV prevalence is rising rapidly in Burma , fuelled by population mobility, poverty and frustration that breeds risky sexual activity and drug-taking. Already, three in one hundred are estimate to be infected with disease, and infection rates in sub-populations with especially risky behavior (such as drug users and sex workers) are among the highest in Asia . Because of the long lag time between HIV infection and death, the true impact of the epidemic is just beginning to be felt. Households are losing breadwinners, children are losing parents, and some of the hardest-hit communities, particularly some fishing villages with very high losses from HIV/AIDS, are losing hope. The National AIDS Program, while professionally competent, is woefully under staffed and under funded and struggles beneath the weight of its tasks. Burma 's health status has deteriorated since a military Junta takes over power in 1988. Thousands of young adults have died without ever having heard of the disease that killed them, let alone of ways to prevent it. In parts of Myanmar , funerals of people in their 20s or 30s are an everyday occurrence. Political isolation, ethnic conflict, and censorship in Burma has led to a health crisis and increased the spread of HIV, the London- based International Center Against Censorship reports.

Activists inside and outside Burma have expressed their disappointment over the military regime’s arrest those people who were providing counseling and education to HIV/AIDS patients. Those who provide their services under the name “Friends with a Red Ribbon” an international insignia and who have completed peer education programs with the UNDP, were arrested in Rangoon on August 13 for not informing local authorities of their overnight stay in a Buddhist monastery. They were at the monastery to prepare for a memorial service for those who had died of HIV/AIDS. Than Naing, one of the arrested members commented, “We are working on this program not to gain a political advantage. This is a humanitarian issue, and the authorities should stop this shameful act.” Educational programs for AIDS are few in Burma and funded by only a handful of foreign aid agencies after Global Fund, the world’s largest funding body, pulled out of Burma last year. Travel and other restrictions by the country’s military-controlled government that impeded the delivery of medical supplies and services forced them to depart.

There were reports on the new restrictive guidelines put on organizations working inside Burma by the new coordinating committee set up to oversee humanitarian organizations, especially helping AIDS patient. It was shared that the UN, INGOs (International Non governmental Organizations) and local NGOs are in the process of consulting in an effort to engage the regime in dialogue about acceptable operating procedures for providing humanitarian assistance. It remains unclear how some of the new guidelines will be implemented as there are 114 international and 393 national organizations operating in the country and requirements such as monthly reports from each group seems impractical to implement.

Several international NGOs, including Medecins du Monde, Medecins San Frontiers, and World Vision, currently have HIV/AIDS programs in Burma , and all have signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with the Junta. While the content of these MOUs has not been made public, it is known that meeting with the pro democracy forces, or cooperating with its members, is not tolerated by the Junta.

The Junta idea was that funding for AIDS by international donors should passed only through them "for they are the monarch of all they survey" whether it really reached the AIDS patient or not in not your concern. Thus when Britain's Ambassador Mark Canning meeting those persons who are really implement the AIDS project they accused Britain of lacking goodwill and accused them as having a sinister intention of creating disturbances and instability. Earlier this month Britain announced a 36-million-dollar contribution to fight the three new diseases including AIDS.

Some groups have reported that despite the new restrictions it is possible to work and that groups who work with mostly local staff and in certain areas of the country are not as susceptible to restrictions. It was shared that one potentially positive result of the guidelines has been better unity among the INGOs in the country and growing dialogue with local organizations. There was an announcement that the Humanitarian Dialogue Center has closed. MSF France has also announced that it will leave the country.

ICRC reported that at the moment they are not conducting jail visits where AIDS is rampant, in Burma because of lack in agreement on the modalities of these visits. ICRC is committed to resuming visits as soon as possible but is clear that these humanitarian assessments need to be independent. Very lately the Junta has ordered its lackey NGO to implement the cleaning of the Jails before the ICRC is allowed to go in. But if the Junta really intend to fight the virus surely it is not by violence as it had done earlier. Four areas need urgent attention from researchers and the private sector:

Development of simple and publicly available methodologies to assess the impact of HIV/AIDS on the country.

An understanding of the macroeconomic effects of the epidemic on nations, particularly on governments and the business and investment environment.

Assessment of the consequences for small- and medium-sized businesses.

Better analysis and understanding of the burden shifting between the public and private sectors and between organizations (public or private including the NLD) and households and individuals.

Malcolm McPherson of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School had outlined how the spread of HIV/AIDS seriously erodes human capacity and adversely affects "capacity deepening," which is broadly defined as building upon existing skills in order to increase productivity. Skilled personnel are lost and valuable labor time is consumed when workers become debilitated, and work schedules are disrupted when organizations replace workers and managers who are ill or have died. The loss of capacity reduces economic growth.

What are the potential remedies? How can the bias against capacity deepening be reversed? What form of private-public cooperation would decrease the pressure on the diminishing supply of highly skilled workers? Several measures will have to be considered:

Expand prevention programs dramatically to protect those who are not HIV-positive.

Institute short-term, repeatable training courses that improve worker efficiency and morale to help prevent further declines in productivity.

Reorganize and simplify work schedules to economize scarce organizational talent. This task may require specialized technical assistance.

Expand support by donor agencies for technical assistance to stabilize the operations of key organizations (e.g. finance, justice, health and education ministries).

In other words the Burmese Junta must stop its war on humanitarian concern and must make a serious commitment for Violence cannot fight the Virus.

Burnaby B C


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