by Marwaan Macan-Markar
(IPS) -- While pressure for political reform in Burma is set to dominate next week's meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Laos, a far more deadly subject, HIV in the region, cries for attention.
Reports since the beginning of July say that the military-ruled country is more than the political sick man of the region. Burma, according to these revelations, has evolved into a country with increasing HIV prevalence that could undermine the stability of its neighbors.
Burma is the main source of all the strains of HIV that have spread across Asia, declared the most recent report, which was released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations, a Rockefeller think tank.
With one exception, namely in China's Henan province, the other strains of the killer virus covering a region from Kazakhstan to southern Vietnam have "genetic fingerprints" that can be traced to Burma, states the report, 'HIV and National Security: Where Are The Links?'
"The genetic HIV evidence is a smoking gun, fingering Burma," added the 67-page report, referring to use of new technology by scientists to identify the progress and spread of a virus far more accurately than before. "The Burmese HIV contribution to much of Asia poses a clear security threat to the region."
While sex workers and heroin users in that country had the highest infection rates -- "with infection as high as 77 percent in northern Burma" -- the routes by which HIV has spread to neighboring countries and beyond were those along which heroin was trafficked, the report revealed.
"The heroin routes," says the report, may be the "greatest contributor of new types of HIV in the world."
This week's report lends weight to similar concerns expressed this month in the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). While the average prevalence rate of HIV in Burma was 1.3 percent, there were pockets where the deadly virus had reached alarming levels, the UN agency stated.
Among the areas singled out by UNAIDS was Hpa-an, a province in the Karen state through which tens of thousands of migrant workers pass in search of employment in neighboring Thailand.
There was a 7.5 percent HIV prevalence rate among people in Hpa-an who had been tested, among them included pregnant women and people with sexually transmitted diseases.
By contrast, the country with the highest HIV prevalence rate in Southeast Asia is Cambodia, above two percent, followed by Thailand, at 1.5 percent.
Dr. Chris Beyrer, an HIV/AIDS expert at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said during an interview this month that, if not dealt with, the spread of HIV in Burma could escalate to the staggering numbers witnessed in the worst hit parts of Africa.
"Cambodia and Burma are the only two countries (in Asia) where the population prevalence is approaching African levels where you would have as many as one in 25 or even one in 20 adults with HIV infection," Bayrer was quoted as having said in an interview appearing on a web portal on HIV/AIDS by the United Nations Development Program.
Currently there are up to 40 million people with HIV across the world, with the worst affected being in sub-Saharan Africa, 25.4 million people, according to UNAIDS. In South and East Asia, the combined number of HIV patients is 8.2 million people.
Burma watchers are hardly surprized by these disturbing realities as, until very recently, Rangoon's military regime refused to acknowledge that the country had an emerging HIV/AIDS crisis.
"Khin Nyunt was the first Burmese prime minister who spoke out publicly that HIV had to be addressed in the country," said Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council for the Union of Burma, an alliance of Burmese exiles.
But Khin Nyunt, a high ranking general who was appointed prime minister in the second half of 2003 was arrested in October the following year and is currently standing trial on various charges, including corruption.
"The military regime's commitment to HIV is very limited," Soe Aung said in an interview. "They don't reveal how many soldiers and military officers are infected, and if a soldier or officer is found HIV positive, he is discharged from the army."
The harsh laws that people live under have also been blamed for the spread of HIV. Most glaring is the legal clause that states a woman in Burma can be arrested and face charges if she is found carrying a condom.
As bad is the country's crumbling public health system, resulting in limited availability of testing centers and hospitals to care for people with HIV. "Burma devotes only 0.19 percent of its GDP (gross domestic product), or 2.7 percent of its state budget for public health," writes Dr. Withaya Huanok in the recent issue of 'The Irrawaddy,' a news magazine on Burmese and regional affairs published in Thailand by Burmese journalists in exile.
"In sharp contrast, 40 percent of the national budget is spent on defense," he adds. "WHO (World Health Organization) ranks Burma second from the bottom of its public health care listings, after Sierra Leone."
In 1999, the amount Rangoon set aside for public health was even lower -- 0.17 percent of its GDP, according to available reports. It was the same year, in fact, that the Burmese generals admitted for the first time that the country was faced with the spreading killer disease, consequently enabling humanitarian agencies to step in.
Little of this escalating public health crisis has been addressed during either the summit meetings or foreign ministers gatherings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The 10-member regional grouping, which includes Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, is facing a mounting political crisis over Burma heading ASEAN in 2006.
"They will be discussing the Burma issue in Laos, especially because Rangoon has displayed no commitment towards political reform," says a Thai regional analyst. "They have also shown little interest in HIV, even though it is becoming such a threat to regional stability."
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