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On March 7, a twelve-member Presidential Commission was formed to draft two bills – one on religious conversions and the other on population growth rate control. According to the notification, representations from monks and lay public have reached the President, and the Union Speaker, too, has intimated that in consequence the government should draft these two laws. News reports say that 1.3 million signatures had been collected last year on the petition that was sent to the President.

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Last week, Myanmar marked International Women’s Day 2014 with a range of events, including the “Image of Woman (Myanmar)” exhibition that celebrated the continuing evolution of the identity of women through the eyes of women artists. Every March 8, people around the world get together for the annual event begun in the early 1900s to highlight the role of women in society and the struggle against the prejudice that makes women second-class citizens and worse in some societies. It’s a struggle against the dominant narrative of patriarchy that to some degree or other sees men ruling the roost and women placed in a supporting, possibly suppressed role. Women may well hold up “half the sky,” as the saying goes, but they typically carry more than their fair share of the burden.

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After a nearly a decade working in Myanmar as a primary care doctor, Christoph Gelsdorf is aware of the health care challenges that can confront newly-arrived expats and has insights on coping with the stresses of adjusting to a new environment.

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Democracy is in trouble around the world but it can be argued that it is the only equitable and viable political system we have. Anybody with an ounce of insight can see that the world’s most popular system of government is having problems in the early years of the 21st century. We only need to look next door at the tear gas and rubber bullets on Bangkok streets or across the Pacific to the recent “shutdown” of the government of the United States to know that one man, one vote does not automatically result in effective and accepted governance.

As Myanmar travels down a “democratic” road on its journey of reform and re-engaging with the world, its citizens would be wise to push for real progress with their democracy and at the same time keep a wary eye on what is wrong in other countries that like to trumpet their democratic credentials.  

Government and opposition politicians in neighboring Thailand have been spectacularly successful in bringing democracy into disrepute. On the one hand, the Pheu Thai government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra has been acting as a front for a man convicted for corruption, her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile to avoid a jail term. Meanwhile, the opposition has refused to accept the people’s verdict in the 2011 election, which saw Pheu Thai secure a comfortable victory. After weeks of street protests led by Suthep Thaugsuban, an anti-government firebrand and former opposition Democrat Party MP, Yingluck capitulated to the mob and on December 9 dissolved parliament ahead of fresh elections called for February 2.  Suthep had been calling for the replacement of the democratically-elected government with a “people’s council” on the grounds that it would prevent voters from electing “bad politicians”. To outsiders – who wonder about the difference between an unelected people’s council and an unelected military junta – the events appear bewildering. To insiders, particularly the Bangkok elite, a battle for the soul of Thailand is underway. For the elites, it’s a struggle about maintaining their hegemony, preserving their vision of the future of the monarchy and destroying the influence that Thaksin exerts over the Thai body politic. In this badly-acted soap opera, the Democrat Party has failed miserably to live up to its name and develop a viable alternative to the current government under a democratic banner. As government and opposition supporters squabble, Thailand needs to hang its head in shame as other ASEAN members look on warily from the sidelines.

Critics claim that politicians in the United States are failing the people in the two-horse race that passes as democracy, with its political system based on money and corporate sponsorship and crippled by poisonous partisanship. The US projects an image as a beacon of democracy for the world, but for many it’s an image tarnished by Guantanamo, a war launched on Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and a security apparatus that has been spying on friends and foes alike. The critics say it is hard to tell the Democratic and Republican parties apart, and the audacious hope excited by the Barack Obama presidency has dissipated into a recognition that he provides little more than “politics as usual,” to the huge disappointment of many. There is little to indicate that the American system of democratic governance, corrupted by campaign funding and corporate sponsorship, will improve in the near term without a radical return to the noble dreams of the country’s founding fathers.

These are but two examples of democracy gone awry, in countries often regarded as successful parliamentary democracies. Many other countries also struggle with the idea of government for the people and by the people, with voting systems that return governments more representative of the views of big business and powerful media interests than they are of those who elected them.

As Myanmar makes slow progress along the path towards democracy, it is sometimes difficult to be optimistic about meaningful change in the short-to-medium term. This is despite the reforms enacted since the Thein Sein government came to power, reforms that have given the people greater freedom and hope for a better future than they would have dared to believe only a few years ago. But this should not blind us to the fact that the government is comprised mainly of former military officers, the parliament is dominated by the military-created Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and that one quarter of MPs are non-elected military appointees and that the 2008 Constitution gives the military commander-in-chief the right to veto any legislation. It is a military government in all but name.

With the 2015 elections looming on the horizon and a parliamentary committee inviting submissions from the public to amend the constitution, it will be interesting to see what transpires in the coming months. Opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is determined to have the constitution amended before the next election, but it is unclear whether changes will be made and if they will reduce the dominance of the military over the government and pave the way for her becoming the next president, should her National League for Democracy secure a landslide in 2015, as is widely expected.

The people of Myanmar would be wise not to expect too much in the short-term, other than to hold the generals to the promise given by the seven-point roadmap unveiled in 2003 for an orderly, albeit guided, transition to democracy. Just what that democracy will look like years down the road is unclear. The universal hope is it will be a significant improvement on the dark era of military authoritarianism.

  

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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.

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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.