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Myanmar: The HIV/AIDS Crisis
Myanmar: The HIV/AIDS Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Briefing 15 / Asia

Myanmar: The HIV/AIDS Crisis

HIV prevalence is rising rapidly in Burma/Myanmar, fuelled by population mobility, poverty and frustration that breeds risky sexual activity and drug-taking.

I. Overview

HIV prevalence is rising rapidly in Burma/Myanmar,[fn]A note on terminology. This report uses the official English names for the country, as applied by the UN, most countries outside the US and Europe and the national government – that is, ‘Burma’ for the period before 1989 and ‘Myanmar’ after 1989. The same criteria are used for other place names such as Rangoon (now Yangon). This should not be perceived as a political statement, or a judgement on the right of the military regime to change the names. In Burma/Myanmar, ‘Bamah’ and ‘Myanma’ have both been used for centuries, being respectively the colloquial and the more formal names for the country in the national language.Hide Footnote  fuelled by population mobility, poverty and frustration that breeds risky sexual activity and drug-taking. Already, one in 50 adults are estimated to be infected, and infection rates in sub-populations with especially risky behaviour (such as drug users and sex workers) are among the highest in Asia. Because of the long lag time between HIV infection and death, the true impact of the epidemic is just beginning to be felt. Households are losing breadwinners, children are losing parents, and some of the hardest-hit communities, particularly some fishing villages with very high losses from HIV/AIDS, are losing hope. Worse is to come, but how much worse depends on the decisions that Myanmar and the international community take in the coming months and years.

The widespread incidence of HIV is a security issue in itself – it can undermine economic, personal and national security.[fn]See ICG Issues Report No. 1, HIV/AIDS as a Security Issue, 19 June 2001.Hide Footnote It can also undermine the already weak capacity of the state to govern, threaten security and military structures and have a devastating impact on the economy.

The government in Yangon has been quick to establish a surveillance system and nominal AIDS control structures but very slow to take any action that would slow the spread of the virus. The National AIDS Program, while professionally competent, is woefully under staffed and under funded and struggles beneath the weight of its tasks. It gets a little help from international NGOs and more from the United Nations system but the major donors are largely absent.

Recently, there have been signs that the government is crawling out of its deep denial about the true magnitude of the HIV epidemic in Myanmar and is preparing to take real measures to stem its spread. It will not be able to do so, however, without a vast infusion of technical and financial help.

HIV is an unforgiving epidemic: once the initial opportunity for effective prevention is lost and a critical mass of infection builds up, the epidemic assumes a life of its own. Prevention becomes more and more difficult, and care needs begin to swamp health and community services, diverting resources that could otherwise be used for other development priorities. Myanmar stands perilously close to an unstoppable epidemic. However large scale action targeted at helping those most at risk protect themselves could still make a real difference.

Action on the scale necessary will inevitably involve working through government institutions, possibly in partnership with NGOs.[fn]For a discussion of the provision of humanitarian aid, see ICG Asia Report No. 32, Burma/Myanmar: The Politics of Humanitarian Aid, 2 April 2002.Hide Footnote  The international community, and bilateral donors in particular, should look for ways to channel resources to Myanmar in ways that encourage political commitment and capitalise on the emerging willingness to confront the HIV epidemic.

Bangkok/Brussels, 2 April 2002

Op-Ed / Asia

Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership

Originally published in Asia Times

In August 2017, the flight of 700,000 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar produced the world’s newest refugee crisis – and one of its worst. Now stuck in miserable camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have little prospect of returning to their homes any time soon.

Their suffering is primarily a grave humanitarian concern and the Bangladeshi government and its foreign partners should focus their response on protecting the well-being of those displaced and assisting host communities. But the Rohingya’s plight also raises a so far unspoken question: Will they wait patiently to return in a safe and dignified manner – for now an unrealistic goal – or will the main militant organization in their midst lead them to pursue their goals with violence?

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) formed in 2012 in the wake of strife among Buddhists and Rohingya in Myanmar’s underdeveloped and conflict-ridden northern Rakhine state. The group leveraged the anger and desperation of Rohingya facing daily oppression as an ethnic and religious minority. Through communal leaders, ARSA propagated a message of hope while in fact bolstering its position via a combination of claims to religious legitimacy and fear.

The militants are now attempting to re-establish themselves as a political voice in the Bangladesh camps. But it’s not too late for the refugees to establish non-militant leadership and self-governance.

ARSA does have sympathizers in the camps, but its authority is less clear than before the mass exodus. In the view of many Rohingya, it was ARSA’s attacks on Myanmar police that provoked the country’s brutal, indiscriminate military campaign forcing them into exile. Foreign governments and human-rights organizations have branded this campaign as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

Not all refugees hold ARSA responsible for the calamity that befell them. Some adopt the view that, whether or not ARSA’s attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive the Rohingya from their land.

The Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves ... While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

But ARSA was also responsible for killings of civilians, both Rohingya and their Hindu neighbors, as it sought to eliminate perceived informants. After careful analysis, Amnesty International concludedthat ARSA massacred dozens of Hindu villagers in August 2017. The group exposed Rohingya civilians to Myanmar’s massively disproportionate response. Its militants did not wear uniforms or do anything else to distinguish themselves from the civilian population, and they launched attacks from the cover of villages.

Since the refugee exodus, ARSA has continued its insurgency, claiming responsibility for an attack on a Myanmar convoy in January. It has also been linked to several killings in the camps.

In October last year, 47 Rohingya religious scholars issued a fatwa condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defense, against Myanmar. But Crisis Group’s May report suggests that this ruling does not necessarily mean the Rohingya have abandoned ARSA or the idea of violent resistance. First, it was issued at the height of the exodus, when the scholars sought to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees were not a security threat. Second, it did not categorically reject violence, but rather denounced particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.

Factors other than opposition to violence could hinder ARSA from representing the Rohingya. Village populations that once backed the militants are now scattered across the camps, new leaders (majhis) are emerging and the “common enemy” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – is far away across the border. Most refugees are preoccupied with the daily struggle to establish basic standards of living in the camps.

Nor does it appear that transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the South Asian subcontinent, Islamic State (ISIS) or their Bangladeshi affiliates – have been able to exploit the Rohingya crisis to mobilize or recruit in the camps. While concerns this might happen are legitimate given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that it is occurring, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps.

The Bangladeshi authorities appear to share this assessment. Moreover, ARSA itself has always sought to distance itself from transnational groups.

But the Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves. The monsoon season has arrived, threatening the camps with flooding. While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

The Rohingya need a non-violent leadership who can work to ensure their safe and voluntary return to their homeland.