The government of Burma (renamed ‘Myanmar’ by the ruling military junta) is still divided, not certain whether to recognize HIV/AIDS as a major disaster facing the country, or to hide behind official (forged) statistics while accusing foreigners of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation.
Needle sharing and unprotected sex are probably the two main channels of infection. In June 2000, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS estimated that over 530,000 people in Burma, a country with approximately forty million inhabitants, were infected with HIV. In October 2001, national HIV rates among injecting drug users and sex workers were as high as 60% and 40%, respectively (MAP Report 2001). Since then, the situation has deteriorated further.
After the events of September 11th, several Southeast Asian countries began expelling illegal immigrants. Thousands of Indonesians were sent home from Singapore, Malaysia expelled Philippine workers from Kilimantan and Thailand decided to crack down on more than a million Burmese, Cambodians and Vietnamese people living within its borders.
This year, the Thai authorities have already rounded up thousands of illegal Burmese migrants, bussing them to several border crossings, including route between the Burmese city of Myawadi and Mae Sot in Thailand, some 350 kilometres from Bangkok.
It is not only HIV/AIDS and deported refugees that haunt the Myawadi/Mae Sot frontier. There are over 110,000 Burmese refugees currently living in ten camps spread along the border between Thailand and Burma, some of which are close to the Myawadi/Mae Sot crossing. Most of the refugees are from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups: some fled from abuses by the Burmese army, while others are active guerrilla members fighting the military junta in Rangoon. Karen fighters from Thai territory make regular attacks against the Burmese military and police installations around Myawadi.
Pragmatic and market oriented Bangkok immediately decided to re-think its policy. After some diplomacy and face-saving declarations, relationships between the two countries gradually improved. Shortly afterwards, Bangkok began a crackdown against human rights organizations and Burmese members of opposition groups living in Thailand. Since June 2002, several Burmese NGOs and dissidents’ offices in Mae Sot, Mae Hong and Chiangmai have been shut down “for security reasons.”
It is almost illegal to have AIDS in Burma. The junta and its institutions often describe the epidemic as “the virus of immorality” while the government obscures relevant data and dismisses warnings by the UN and NGOs as foreign exaggeration.