Tuesday, December 2, 2008

World AIDS DAY: Remembering AIDS victims of Burma (Myanmar)

AIDS Ribbon by Sully Pixel
I lost two cousins back-to-back to AIDS a couple of years ago. One was a famous rock star in Myanmar (Burma) Ba Din -- most people of my generation would remember him. He's one of those rare musicians that actually composed his own music. Most music in Burma are just the western music in Burmese. (Try listening to "My Heart Will Go On" in Burmese it's horrible, though Eminem is not bad.) The other cousin was his brother -- one of the first generation Burmese programmers. Ko Ba Din, ("Ko" is a title of respect and love that the Burmese endow upon older brothers.) left behind a wife and a son. Ko Kwa's wife disappeared shortly after his death and many suspect her to be dead.

My (upper middle class, highly educated, world traveling) family still does not talk about their loss to "that disease". We talk about how crazy they were and what they did when they were drunk or delirious from "the illness". Ko Kwa was sent to the mad house where they keep "those who will not return". My dad picked him up and brought him home. He died after a couple of months of suffering. Of course I didn't witness all this, I was away on the other side of the world. It's only because of my mother, who wants me to know what goes on in the family that I know about this.

Incidentally, probably that same year, 2000, I had called my father to tell him that a report came out from the World Health Organization (WHO) that said that Myanmar had the highest HIV infection rate. Our health care system was ranked 190 when there's only 191 countries. Read the SF Chronicle article here. My father denied the facts, of course, as any good career diplomat would over the tapped phone lines. I understood something was up. And sure enough a couple of months down the line, my other cousin who was studying in Illinois emails me to tell me that Ko Kwa passed away from some sort of illness. I don't even know if he himself knew that it was AIDS related then.

Fast forward eight years to 2008 -- there's a ton of orphans in Myanmar right now because a lot of people from my cousins' generation are dead. Still to this day, nobody really knows how many Burmese are HIV-positive but the recent press release from UNAIDS estimates that about 240,000 people in Myanmar are infected. According to the Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) 76,000 Burmese are in urgent need to antiretroviral treatment or else they will die needlessly (Most likely producing more orphans). Apparently, Myanmar receives the lowest humanitarian aid -- USD $3.00 per person only. Probably the lowest in the region compared to her neighboring countries.

This is not surprising to me, I went to Myanmar right after the Cyclone Nargis. Literally, I landed right after the skies were cleared. I wasn't used to living without electricity or proper water, but my family and neighbors managed. My mom cooked me my favorite dishes, they found stuff even when prices where going through the roof. My aunt even got me some frog curry (Ya I have weird taste in food, I can be Anthony Bourdain's apprentice). My dad put me back on the plane as fast as he could. When I came back to India, I saw that Myanmar made New York Times headlines for a couple days. As I ask myself: why do we make headlines only when monks or students get shot or a major cyclone disaster hits? Then, I check another email from the New York Times, this is a sad one: Myanmar didn't make it on the "most emailed" articles list of that week. People were more concerned about the Emmy nominations.

So this World AIDS Day, are people really concerned about AIDS or are they more concerned about Cyber Mondays and Mobile Tuesdays? Are they concerned about who to invite to their Christmas party, or their jobs, Britney Spears's new documentary on MTV, or world peace? What are folks really worried about? If you're really concerned about AIDS and the dying children in Burma, you can go ahead and send some cash to Doctors Without Borders by clicking here.

Because if you really care, saving a life is only a couple of clicks away.

Photo by
Sully Pixel


Chanchal Roychoudhury said...

I think the main worry about AIDS is not the disease. It is the lack of awareness, which leads to social stigma. That is, in turn, linked to the idea of sex as 'taboo' in the South-Asian countries like India. Unless the 'forbidden' tag is wrenched out of all aspects related to sexuality, there is little hope of any progress in making people aware. How can you get your message across when families change the TV channel as soon as the word 'condom' is used?

Yu^2 said...

It's not just sex that's the problem in Myanmar. It's drug abuse too. Myanmar produces most heroin after Afghanistan. That's why the Regan administration had a big issue with us with their "war on drugs". About TV channels: at least in India there ARE channels to flip. In Myanmar there are 2 state channels non of them are 24/7. If you're not wealthy enough to get a satellite dish or lucky enough to get electricity there are NO channels to flip.

TheNextCorner said...

Heartbreaking story.
Very well written, and I hope you can shake up the world to pay more attention to problems like these.
Thank you for sharing, it brought me new insights and information which I prior didn't have.