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September 17, 2009  

Burma: The Opposite of Public Health

In Burma, health care is hard to come by. For years, Buddhist monks and nuns at Maggin monastery provided some of the only HIV testing, counseling and treatment to be found in Rangoon. The monastery offered housing, food and palliative care for AIDS patients as well, meeting a need that is mostly ignored by the governing regime.

“The monasteries have stepped into the breach,” says Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights, but by doing so they’ve become targets of brutal attacks by the abusive junta that has ruled since 1962.

In September 2007, in the wake of the national popular uprising known as the Saffron Revolution, the generals raided the monastery and shut down HIV/AIDS services. Maggin’s abbot, U Indaka, was arrested and, according to U Pyinya Za Ta, sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in a Burmese prison.

U Pyinya Za Ta is one of the monks to escape from the monastery, and he spoke at the Bloomberg School September 10 and 11 alongside U Ga Sita and U Agga Nya Na. Accompanying a showing of Burma VJ, a documentary made by undercover videojournalists during the uprising, the monks spoke about human rights and health care in Burma. The event was sponsored by the School’s Center for Public Health and Human Rights, and the monks represent All Burma Monks’ Alliance.

The footage smuggled out the country by Democratic Voice of Burma, along with reports from the monks, tells a story of systematic neglect. With a virtually non-existent public health infrastructure, the country typically provides health care only in cases of terminal illness—and even then, the few clinics and hospitals in use are poorly equipped. Nationally, there is little emphasis on prevention, and almost no education: many Burmese are uninformed about health concerns such as HIV and H1N1 influenza. Health education is so poor in Burma, says U Pyinya Za Ta, that many people don’t even understand the value of hand-washing in disease prevention. Furthermore, when a citizen dies, the death may be recorded, but its cause is often unidentified—tuberculosis or AIDS, perhaps—because the clinics don’t have the resources or permission to keep accurate statistics.

In the prisons, health care is worse. Commonly, prisoners—criminal and political alike—sleep on floors, use chamber pots kept in the corners of their cells, and take showers that consist of six to 12 bowls of water. U Pyinya Za Ta, who was for several years a politcal prisoner, recounted the typical practice of injections —for the administration of medicine, one syringe will be used on three people before being replaced or cleaned. The spread of HIV in Burmese prisons, says the monk, is rampant.

During the question-and-answer sessions, the three monks expressed their opinions about the junta’s appropriation of funds. The government gets income from the country’s natural resources—natural gas, forests, fisheries and more—but does not spend it on health or education. “They use all the money for the military,” said U Ga Sita.

— Christine Grillo