13 Dec Prevention rather than cure
Myanmar needs to do more to tackle its HIV-AIDS challenge and it needs the commitment
of more government and high-profile personalities promoting a dual message of warning and
acceptance. Many countries have gone through a period of denial, playing down the problem, only to find the number of HIV cases has risen dramatically because they had failed to devote
enough resources publicity and prevention. This is particularly true in countries in Africa, but also in Asia, in India and Bangladesh, where the underground truck-stop sex culture and back-street prostitution scenes see little in the way of condom-use awareness.
It was encouraging that opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called for an end to discrimination against HIV-positive people on World AIDS Day during her recent visit to Australia. “The fight against discrimination is an extension of our fight for freedom from fear,” the UNA IDS global advocate said in Melbourne. “My simple message as the global ambassador for zero discrimination is it all starts in the mind and in the heart. There must be less calculation
and more warmth, more love, more affection, more compassion.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a wellplaced advocate to highlight the issue on both the levels of prevention and treatment, though perhaps it is easer for her to speak about the issue abroad than at home, where HIV-AIDS needs far more attention if it is not to become an epidemic.
The Myanmar authorities recognize there is a problem but could be trying harder to find a solution. They would do well to reflect to Thailand’s response to HIV-AIDS. When it first
emerged in Thailand in the 1980s, the government was in denial, partly because of embarrassment – sexually transmitted diseases not being the subject of polite conversation – and
partly because of concern about the impact the news would have on the country’s tourism industry, one of its biggest income earners. If it was a problem, said Bangkok, it was not a problem for mainstream society.
Luckily, Thailand had an outspoken, publicity savvy advocate in Meechai Virayaidya, or “Mr Condom”, as he was dubbed, an NGO activist and politician, who literally took to the streets to promote condom
use and the acceptance of those living with HIV. He walked around with banners and supporters handing out condoms, raised the issue in many public forums, and established a chain of restaurants called “Cabbages and Condoms”, where condoms instead of sweets were given out at the end of the meal. His campaigning and the belated efforts of the Thai government contributed to a sharp fall in the HIV infection rate in Thailand.
There are similarities between Myanmar’s sexual culture and that of Thailand two decades ago, with sexual issues being kept hidden for cultural reasons in a society with a growing and unregulated sex industry. Some might claim that Myanmar’s more conservative attitudes to sex is to its advantage, but
the Thai example is a strong argument for the efficacy of confronting the issue honestly and publicly.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a far cry from Thailand’s Mr Condom and is more likely to strut the world stage with her message of compassion than the backstreets of Yangon. It is also worth mentioning that her message is one of compassion focused on acceptance of those living with HIV-AIDS, rather than a banner-waving campaign to promote condom use, HIV testing and changes in sexual behavior.
Myanmar needs a stronger prevention campaign as well as a more compassionate response to those living with HIV-AIDS, many of whom endure cruel stigmatization borne of ignorance and irrational fear. Failure to act now will have dire consequences in the future.
30 Nov Poor Marks
The United States has welcomed the release by the Myanmar government of 69 political prisoners earlier this month and commended the commitment by President Thein Sein to release all such prisoners by the end of the year. A US government spokesman said Myanmar has released more than 1,100 political prisoners since the reform process began in 2011, after the Thein Sein government took power. Myanmar’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest by the previous military government in November 2010, six days after the country’s first parliamentary elections in more than five decades.
23 Nov Sweatshop Woes
The recent strike at a Yangon garment factory may be a hint that more attention needs to be paid to working conditions as Myanmar continues to promote itself as a place to do business. The strike of 200 workers at the “handsome” factory in Dagon Seikkan Township began on October 26, and continued for more than two weeks, after the sacking of a worker who refused to work overtime. Striking workers claimed the man was sacked without sufficient reason and called for the rights to which they claim they are entitled under the labor laws. They also complained about the installation of a CCTV camera outside a women’s toilet that seemed to indicate there was concern about workers taking refuge in the toilet, rather than working. The management said it had been meeting the workers and hoped to settle the strike peacefully. Eventually, the dispute was settled and the strikers went back to work on November 5.
16 Nov Telling it like it is
Reporters and editors might be drawn to the tantalizing promise in the title of an editorial that ran last week in the New York Times. Entitled, “It’s the Golden Age of News,” the op-ed by New York-based veteran journalist Bill Keller seeks to row against the tide in an attempt to rethink conventional wisdom that the news business as we know it worldwide is going down the tubes. As an editor overseeing a network of foreign reporters, Keller trawls through a plethora of news outlets around the world with his morning cup of coffee to see what subjects are on the boil. That, he says, gives him cause for hope, even though there are fewer experienced journalists reporting the news due to financial cuts. As he argues, the Internet has opened up a wealth of new news channels in multiple languages, which shows it is a vibrant and growing scene. He admits that the news business is a more competitive market, with efforts being made to reengineer the business models, moving away from the massive newsrooms – as exemplified by The Gray Lady, as his newspaper is dubbed – to slicker, tighter-staffed operations. And as he notes, the Internet is helping to pump out free content, providing the consumer with a wealth of choice, yet this poses its own serious challenges for those media outlets seeking to maintain quality journalism.
09 Nov Business, Myanmar-style
How easy is it to do business in Myanmar? The World Bank and the International Finance Corporation have for the first time added Myanmar to their annual ranking of business-friendly countries around the world. The 2014 Doing Businessreport examines the legal and regulatory environment in 189 economies. Overall, the trend around the world is towards improvement, with the pace of regulatory reform for small and mediumsize businesses – the main job creators in many parts of the world – on the up.
The end of October saw electricity tariffs swell to almost double their previous size. Many fear that this price increase will reverberate throughout consumer markets: an atmosphere of anxiety already hovers over the heads ofshoppers. However, the impacts of higher energy prices will pollute much more than the shelves of supermarkets and the racks of boutiques.