Thursday, September 5, 2002

Andre Vltchek

Illegal to have AIDS In Burma

The International Crisis Group, warns that HIV prevalence is rising rapidly in Burma/Myanmar, fuelled by population mobility, poverty and frustration that breeds risky sexual activity and drug-taking. Already, one in fifty adults are estimated to be infected, and infection rates in sub-populations with especially risky behaviour, such as drug users and sex workers, are among the highest in Asia.

The government of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta) is still divided, not certain whether to recognize HIV/AIDS as a major disaster facing the country, or to hide behind official (forged) statistics while accusing foreigners of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation.

Burma, one of the poorest countries on earth, has lived under repressive military government for over forty years. It is the world's largest producer and exporter of heroin, but the drug also leaks into to its domestic market.

Needle sharing and unprotected sex are probably the two main channels of infection. In June 2000, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS estimated that over 530,000 people in Burma, a country with approximately forty million inhabitants, were infected with HIV. In October 2001, national HIV rates among injecting drug users and sex workers were as high as 60% and 40%, respectively (MAP Report 2001). Since then, the situation has deteriorated further.

An increasing number of Burmese citizens are being infected with HIV at medical centres and hospitals, through transfusions administered after traffic or other accidents. Blood donors are often recruited from the street with minimal checks for HIV infection. Blood banks often contain mixed blood from different donors.

After the events of September 11th, several Southeast Asian countries began expelling illegal immigrants. Thousands of Indonesians were sent home from Singapore, Malaysia expelled Philippine workers from Kilimantan and Thailand decided to crack down on more than a million Burmese, Cambodians and Vietnamese people living within its borders.

An estimated 1.2m Burmese citizens still live and work illegally in the cities and beach resorts of Thailand. A large proportion is illiterate and vulnerable to exploitation, and is labouring under intolerable conditions in the construction and sex industries. The rate of HIV infection rate among these people is one of the highest in Asia. This year, the Thai authorities have already rounded up thousands of illegal Burmese migrants, bussing them to several border crossings, including route between the Burmese city of Myawadi and Mae Sot in Thailand, some 350 kilometres from Bangkok.

According to one French member of an international NGO, who declined to be identified, the Burmese authorities are conducting HIV tests on deported citizens right next to the Friendship Bridge that divides the two countries. Those who are HIV positive are separated from the rest and often imprisoned. Since there is almost no treatment in Burma for those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, we suspect that sick people are dying in some undisclosed camps in Burma, in terrible conditions.

It is not only HIV/AIDS and deported refugees that haunt the Myawadi/Mae Sot frontier. There are over 110,000 Burmese refugees currently living in ten camps spread along the border between Thailand and Burma, some of which are close to the Myawadi/Mae Sot crossing. Most of the refugees are from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups: some fled from abuses by the Burmese army, while others are active guerrilla members fighting the military junta in Rangoon. Karen fighters from Thai territory make regular attacks against the Burmese military and police installations around Myawadi.

Thailand has displayed a schizophrenic policy towards its neighbour. Earlier this year, the Kingdom began deporting Burmese economic migrants, many of who were carrying the HIV virus. Later, in May, the Thai authorities became involved in a military, diplomatic and media conflict with Burma. On that occasion, the Burmese made sure to insult the Thai King and the Kingdom as an institution, an act that almost led to real war. Burma closed several border crossings and Thailand began losing millions of dollars from trade and transit.

Pragmatic and market oriented Bangkok immediately decided to re-think its policy. After some diplomacy and face-saving declarations, relationships between the two countries gradually improved. Shortly afterwards, Bangkok began a crackdown against human rights organizations and Burmese members of opposition groups living in Thailand. Since June 2002, several Burmese NGOs and dissidents; offices in Mae Sot, Mae Hong and Chiangmai have been shut down for security reasons.

The rate at which deportations of Burmese citizens from Thailand will proceed is unclear. However, one thing is certain desperately poor Burma is unwilling and unable to accommodate further tens of thousands of HIV positive patients returning from abroad. Its cash-strapped medical facilities can hardly afford to provide basic services even for much less complicated diseases.

It is almost illegal to have AIDS in Burma. The junta and its institutions often describe the epidemic as the virus of immorality while the government obscures relevant data and dismisses warnings by the UN and NGOs as foreign exaggeration.

In July 2002, the Burmese government declined to send government officials to a workshop in Bangkok arranged to deal with HIV/AIDS and preventive education in the cross-border areas of the Greater Mekong Sub-region, organized by the Asian Development Bank, the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau of Education and the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization. Burma's sole representative was Dr. Ivan from World Vision, an NGO, who didn't hesitate to declare: The situation in my country is catastrophic.

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Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 28, 2002
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