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November 11, 2000 , U.S. Edition
DATELINE: Chiang Mai
WHILE the world worries about Myanmar's political stalemate,
a deadlier crisis is brewing. Thanks to a combination of ravaging
infectious diseases, an atrocious health-care system, and the
military regime's refusal to admit that anything is amiss, public-
health officials fear that average life expectancy is collapsing.
It could fall, they say, to as low as 45 years in the next two
decades or so.
The junta is in denial. It claims, for instance, that no more than
25,000 people are infected with HIV in Myanmar. Researchers
at the World Bank, however, put the figure at over 700,000, in a
population of 48m, making the country the worst of the three in
Asia in which more than 1% of the population is infected.
(The others are Thailand and Cambodia.) According to several
studies, as any as 8% of Myanmar's soldiers are HIV-positive.
The growing use of intravenous drugs, and the increased
production of heroin and amphetamines by ethnic-minority
militias, will only exacerbate the epidemic.
Not only AIDS but also malaria, anthrax and old-fashioned
malnutrition are decimating the people of Myanmar. Along the
rugged border with Thailand, home to some of the most drug-
resistant strains of malaria in the world, a new epidemic of
malaria and anthrax is said to have killed as many as 10,000
people since July, mostly in the north-eastern district of Maung
Yawn. Military sources in the northern Thai province of Chiang
Mai say that hundreds of Maung Yawn residents have been
crossing into Thailand in search of anti-malaria drugs.
Since 1989, when the junta signed a peace treaty with the
United Wa State Army, a militia operating among the Wa
people in Maung Yawn, the central government has had little
presence in the area; there are no government hospitals in the
territory controlled by the militia. Even if the junta had control
over Maung Yawn, it could not do much: foreign malariologists
working in Myanmar tell of government hospitals stocked with
little more than bandages and a few painkillers. Medicines are
not all that is in short supply. Despite the recent boast of Khin
Nyunt, the regime's intelligence chief, that his country could
export grain to other Asian states, exiles who have fled to
Chiang Mai speak of famine in some outlying regions. The armed
forces, which have allegedly been ordered to "live off the land",
often steal food from malnourished villagers, they say.
The Yangon junta has refused to acknowledge the scope of the
health crisis, calling estimates of HIV and malaria rates
exaggerated. The government has launched a programme to
boost literacy, which may help empower some women and
thereby help slow HIV transmission, but it does not require
sex or drugs education in schools.
Myanmar gets little help from outside. Foreign aid remains
limited, thanks to the sanctions slapped on the junta by many
countries after the generals refused to acknowledge Aung San
Suu Kyi's victory in the 1990 general election. Pakistan and
China are friendly, but they tend to supply weapons, not pills.
The Thai government had vowed to set up a health task-force
with Myanmar, but relations between the two neighbours have
become strained. The militias have taken to exporting vast
quantities of amphetamines to Thailand, where the government
blames the Myanmar regime for failing to control its new Wa
friends.A public-health crisis threatens to overwhelm Myanmar.