Bangkok AIDS Conference


Silence on the Border

Anonymously written

August 2, 2004

Why did so few people from Myanmar cross the Three Pagoda Pass to participate in the Three Elephants Conference?

Participants arriving at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok last month were met by thousands of banners and flags flying the official Conference logo featuring three elephants. There was no need to cross the Three Pagodas Pass in the mountains between Myanmar and Thailand in order for Myanmar people to participate in this Three Elephants Conference. Yangon is only an hour flight from Bangkok. And there are more than two flights a day.

So why are there so few Myanmar participants at the conference? Only about fifty people from Myanmar made the trip. As Myanmar has a little more than fifty million people, that is only one participant for every million Myanmar people. Compare this ratio to another country that neighbours Thailand and has a severe epidemic: Cambodia. There were one hundred and sixty Cambodian participants at the Bangkok conference. That is one participant for every ten thousand people in the country. There were proportionately one hundred times more Cambodian participants than Myanmar ones. There were members of the Cambodian royal family, civil servants, local nongovernmental organisations, sex workers, and people living with the virus. Little Laos is another neighbour of Thailand. And it has a little epidemic. But even Laos sent proportionately ten times as many participants to the Conference as Myanmar did.

Lack of attendance at such an important international event close to Yangon is inexcusable. But the silence of the Myanmar delegation was nothing short of irresponsible. There were no Myanmar speakers at all on the official agenda of the conference. The head of the National AIDS Programme Dr Min Thwe attended two sessions in which he spoke but his appearances were not announced in the official programme. There were fourteen poster presentations from Myanmar put up in the poster exhibition area. Again the comparison with Cambodia is instructive - Cambodia had thirty times more presentations than Myanmar.

The absence of Myanmar people means that not many Myanmar people learned much from the Conference. There were no formal plans to disseminate the information from the Conference to Myanmar people. And the silence of Myanmar participants means that few others at the Conference learned much about Myanmar. Only a few nongovernmental voices from Myanmar were heard, along with the voice of the UNAIDS Country Coordinator. This lack of voice leaves Myanmar and Myanmar participants open to charges of withholding information. On the other hand, voices critical of the regime were loud and clear. We heard Dennis Altman note the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi during a key note plenary address on human rights in front of thousands of people. And Chris Beyrer continued his criticisms of the government.

The theme of the Conference was Access for All. What a shame that so few from Myanmar had access to the opportunities to listen and speak at the Conference. At least one United Nations organisation representative from Myanmar had no problem accessing the Conference. He was seen wearing a borrowed Conference admittance badge - belonging to a staff person from the World Bank!


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