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OCTOBER 16, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 15

A New Epicenter
Burma ignores its AIDS crisis

ALSO
Back to the Brink: Once a model for how to control AIDS, Thailand now is losing the battle. Blame changing sexual habits and cuts in state spending

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India has unexpectedly and unintentionally found a future through the Internet, one fueled by the largest pool of engineering talent in the developing world
Wave of the Future: Villages get hooked up
Interview: "Our Net revolution is here to stay"
Viewpoint: Why India, not China, is a high-tech whiz

TAIWAN: Rookie Mistakes
The resignation of Premier Tang Fei highlights the fragility of Chen Shui-bian's young and still fumbling administration

THAILAND: Back to the Brink
Changing sexual habits and a decline in funds for AIDS prevention is leading to a dangerous rebound in HIV rates
Burma: The generals battle the disease by lying about it

MALAYSIA: All the News That's Fit to Surf
Stymied by the nation's traditional, conservative press, more and more readers are going online for information

CINEMA: In the Mood for Wong Kar-wai
Fifteen months in the making, the Hong Kong director's latest film leaves viewers both delighted and mystified
On Location: A long night on the wild side

BOOKS: A Walk on the Wild Side
An entertaining biography examines the man who has chronicled Bangkok and its sex scene for 35 years

TRAVEL WATCH: Check into the past at one of Asia's Grand Hotels

No country in Asia is in deeper denial over AIDS than Burma. As neighboring Cambodia and Thailand marshal their meager resources to combat the spread of AIDS, the generals who rule Burma have chosen a different strategy to fight the disease: they lie about it. As Burma becomes a new epicenter for the proliferation of HIV, these fabrications are proving deadly not only for the nation's citizens, but also for their neighbors.

In Burma, a country of 45 million, about 530,000 people were infected with HIV at the end of 1999, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Many experts suspect the number is much higher: information is hard to come by, particularly since parts of the country are closed to outsiders because of conflicts involving ethnic minorities. "Numbers are red herrings," says Tony Lisle, intercountry coordinator for UNAIDS in Asia. "What is clear is that the epidemic in Burma is severe." Kul Gautam, deputy executive director of unicef, warns that Burma's problem may soon rival that of African countries. Among the factors: large-scale heroin production and addiction and a fast-growing commercial sex industry.

Intelligence chief Lieut. General Khin Nyunt, one of the junta's most powerful figures, downplays the danger. Burma has "no rampaging AIDS epidemic," he told a regional conference of health ministers in Rangoon last year. Just 25,000 Burmese were HIV-positive, he said, adding that claims the country is suffering from an AIDS contagion were fabricated by the regime's enemies.

Burma is one of the poorest nations in Asia. The generals, however, spend more than twice as much on weapons as they do on health and education combined. (U.S. spending on health and education is six times its defense budget.) According to the Southeast Asian Information Network, an activist group in Thailand, only 2% of Burmese men use condoms, which are scarce and expensive by regional standards. The military's control of information has left many Burmese with "no idea what causes AIDS and how to prevent it," says Debbie Stothard, a Bangkok democracy activist.

As heroin, illegal workers and prostitutes exit the country, Burma is emerging as an AIDS exporter. In neighboring China, India and Thailand, the provinces with the highest HIV rates are those that border Burma. Bangkok has voiced frustration at what it sees as the regime's lack of cooperation on the issue. Because of Rangoon's pariah status with most Western nations—the military violently crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and nullified an election it lost by a landslide in 1990—Burma is not getting the outside help it needs. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi routinely calls for economic sanctions and for businesses not to invest, but she believes foreign NGOS should do AIDS work in Burma. Many decline, however, because they don't want to be accused of helping the regime. "The international community must look at this in purely humanitarian terms and not political terms," warns Lisle. "If it doesn't, then the international community will be culpable." UNAIDS estimates that 48,000 Burmese died of AIDS last year, while 43,000 children have been orphaned by the disease. By maintaining the fiction that there is no epidemic in Burma, the military may end up killing more people with lies than it ever has with guns.

R.H.

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