The AIDS Embargo
By Aung Zaw
January 01, 2002
Burma’s censors have imposed an effective ban on reporting about HIV/AIDS. But they are not alone: The exiled opposition is also maintaining an unhealthy silence on the issue.
After news of the talks between the opposition and the generals was leaked to the press last year, some political leaders sensed new signs of media openness in Burma.
Short-wave radio stations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Free Asia and the Democratic Voice of Burma in Norway could suddenly arrange phone interviews with veteran politicians in Rangoon.
Previously, granting interviews to foreign radio stations could earn Burmese politicians jail sentences of five to ten years.
Still, openly expressing one’s views is like walking on a tight rope. Veteran politicians take great risks to candidly air their views as the freedoms and tolerance they enjoy remain limited. However, while freer to speak out on political issues, they don’t dare comment on the country’s AIDS problem. Burma’s physicians and health workers now say the issue of HIV/AIDS is more sensitive than the country’s on-going political issues. The generals think that the outside world and opposition groups are playing up the AIDS issue to draw criticism against the military government.
Although Burma’s Ministry of Health officially puts the number of HIV patients at only 40,000, UNAIDS estimated last year that over half a million people in Burma are HIV-positive, potentially leading to a full-blown AIDS epidemic. Burma now has 50 million people.
"The number could be higher," says a Burmese physician in his 40s requesting anonymity. "The government does not want us to reveal actual numbers or areas [with high infection rates] to the public or the press. It is very sensitive and controversial," he adds.
Nevertheless, AIDS is reaching everywhere in Burma. A former university student now in Thailand recalled five of his friends who died from AIDS over the past five years. They were all from Rangoon.
But Burma is in a state of denial. Even those generals considered to be progressive are slow to accept the problem, unready to take initiative. Says a Burmese physician who is close to high-ranking officials, "It has taken years for us to convince them the problem exists and is getting worse."
Lately, however, Burma’s top leaders have quietly begun to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic while carefully trying not to feed into their negative image. Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, who also heads the national health committee and is considered among the most pragmatic and educated of the top leaders, has stated in an interview with the Rangoon-based weekly Myanmar Times, "HIV/AIDS…is a national cause. If we ignore it, it will be the scourge that will destroy entire races."
"I personally feel that much more is needed to understand the warning clearly," Khin Nyunt continued. "So I insisted that they put this on all posters: ‘AIDS kills, no cure, no hope’," clearly demonstrating his ignorance about the disease.
Though more and more HIV/AIDS education materials are being published in the state-run press these days, Burma’s health workers say such an effort is outdated and insufficient to tackle the problem. They also point out that heavily censoring AIDS news and failing to utilize the mass media as a weapon to fight the disease means more casualties ahead in the battle against AIDS. "So far the winner is AIDS because it has very few enemies," says a doctor at Rangoon General Hospital.
A nurse from Rangoon explains the need for greater media coverage and the shortfalls of the government education campaign to The Irrawaddy: "Over 80 percent of people in Thakata [in Rangoon division] do not know how HIV is transmitted." She adds, "Among family members, the mention of condoms is taboo."
The Myanmar Times responded by publishing HIV/AIDS news from wire services and government officials. The paper, which is backed by high-ranking military officials in Rangoon, shies away from in-depth reporting on the epidemic, however. A staff member told The Irrawaddy, "We want to write more stories related to AIDS, but officials tell us to be careful."
Burma’s notorious Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) still censors AIDS coverage, refusing to publish accurate figures or personal tales of AIDS patients. It even refused to publish a cartoon aimed at educating readers about the disease on the grounds that it was "too culturally sensitive".
Last year, the Burmese health minister, Maj-Gen Ket Sein, suggested that promoting the use of condoms was now part of the AIDS campaign. But a writer in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy that PSB officials still treat sex as taboo and points out: "In novels and short stories the word ‘condom’ cannot be mentioned."
PSB officials are willing, however, to approve more straightforward education pieces on AIDS. But exposing the HIV infection figures around the Hpakan jade mine, for instance, is not allowed. Many have died from AIDS at the mine located in Kachin State. "They [PSB officials] are afraid that the figures will scare people," explains an editor of a weekly journal in Rangoon.
"We can write about other countries’ AIDS problems but not ours", says the editor. "Besides, the government leaders are also worried that people will blame them."
Their worries are evident. In December, Rangoon did not allow two HIV patients to attend the "Fifth International Conference on Home and Community Care for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS" in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Physicians, health workers and officials who attended the conference were tight-lipped about the issue, worried that Rangoon’s spies would be watching them in Chiang Mai.
For the over one million Burmese already living and working in Thailand, the AIDS situation bears strong resemblance to that inside Burma, particularly along the border. Little knowledge and widespread misconceptions about HIV/AIDS afflict migrant workers. Many believe that HIV can be contracted from toilet seats, mosquito bites, kissing, or coughing. More dangerously, many women believe that contraceptive pills can prevent HIV infection.
Although credible data is not available, infection rates among Burmese commercial sex workers in the border towns of Mae Sot, Mae Sai, and Ranong are considered high. Some worry that releasing precise figures could further damage the already negative image of Burmese migrant workers and lead the Thai authorities, who attribute soaring health problems largely to the migrants, to intensify their crackdown on them.
While over a dozen dissident newsletters and journals are published regularly, there is no heavy censorship or PSB officials in Thailand to monitor these publications, yet HIV/AIDS receives very little coverage.
"Dissidents here are also in denial", says a Burmese health worker in Mae Sot, where an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Burmese migrant workers live.
A health worker on the border sums up the failure of the education and information campaign, blaming both the government and the dissidents in Thailand: "The opposition groups in exile always exploit the AIDS situation, but they are also ignorant. Neither has an understanding of the real impact of this epidemic." He also comments that educational leaflets will not help in those areas where many cannot read or write. "It will be meaningless."
In this case, radios are much more effective. Over the past four years, Western-based radio stations RFA, BBC and DVB aired several AIDS education programs. But not everyone is listening to these programs. Nor does everyone own a radio.