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Burma: The Generals vs. the

                         By Cesar Chelala

                         Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page C09
                         The Washington Post 

                         One of the most regrettable aspects of Burma's
abusive military
                         regime is its persecution and imprisonment of
physicians. This
                         persecution comes at a time of continuous
deterioration of
                         health conditions in that country. It can be
anticipated that the
                         situation will only worsen unless the international
                         forces out a dictatorship that is far more
responsive to its own
                         perverse interests than to the welfare of the
Burmese people.

                         Now under arrest or missing are eight physicians
who are
                         members of parliament. It is known that three of
them were
                         given 25-year prison sentences for attending secret
                         One of the physicians, Dr. Aung Khin Sint, had been
                         a literacy award in 1972 and received the World Health
                         Fellowship three times. He was arrested on Aug. 4,
1993, for
                         distributing leaflets that opposed restrictions
imposed on the
                         National Convention. He was released on Feb. 4, 1995,
                         rearrested on July 23, 1996, and is still in
prison. No sentence
                         has been given, nor are family visits allowed.

                         Also imprisoned is Dr. Ma Thida, the recipient of
the 1996
                         Reebok Human Rights Award and of the PEN/Barbara
                         Goldsmith award, which honors writers or
journalists who have
                         courageously defended freedom of expression. Dr. Ma
                         is a writer and political activist who was a
campaign assistant to
                         Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democracy
                         movement. In October 1993, she was sentenced to 20
years in
                         prison for "endangering public tranquillity, having
contact with
                         unlawful organizations, and distributing unlawful
literature." It's
                         possible that Dr. Ma Thida was punished for being among
                         several physicians who treated civilians during the
                         pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988, and for her
                         outspoken work for the National League for
Democracy. She
                         is being kept at Insein prison in Rangoon.

                         A report by Amnesty International reveals that Dr.
Ma Thida is
                         held in solitary confinement, that her prison cell
has little light
                         and that she has no access to reading materials.
She has had
                         tuberculosis, and in the past three years has
developed three
                         ovarian tumors that require surgery. Because of
lack of access
                         to her or to information about her health, it is
not known
                         whether surgery has been performed to remove the
                         Burma's jails are mostly inaccessible not only to
human rights
                         and humanitarian organizations but, in many cases,
to the
                         families of the detainees as well.

                         It is estimated that there are 4,800 prisoners in
Insein prison,
                         most of whom are without adequate medical attention, in
                         conditions that Amnesty International indicates
often amount to
                         cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Also of
concern is the
                         denial of medical care for those imprisoned or
forced to act as
                         porters for army troops in border areas. Civilians
have been
                         repeatedly maimed or killed by land mines placed by the

                         Physicians for Human Rights has gathered
information that in
                         the past the Burmese security forces have violated
                         internationally accepted principles of medical
neutrality. In
                         addition, during periods of conflict between the
                         and minority groups, health workers in border areas
have been
                         detained for rendering medical care, and civilians
in those areas
                         have been denied the most basic medical attention.

                         The need for health workers is the more pressing
                         AIDS is an important public health problem in the
region in
                         general and in Burma in particular. In 1996 it was
                         that 500,000 people in Burma had been infected with
                         an estimated 160,000 drug addicts, at least half
are said by
                         experts to be infected with HIV. Burma's neighbors
share in
                         the risk, as HIV infection spreads quickly along
drug trade
                         routes. There has been a rapid expansion of the
epidemic from
                         the poppy-growing centers of northern Thailand to
                         areas of Burma, China, India and Laos.

                         Currently, only about 65 percent of the Burmese
people have
                         access to basic health services, which explains the
                         national health indicators. The national infant
mortality rate in
                         1995 was 105 for every 1,000 live births, with wide
                         variations in the country. This compares with 34 in
Vietnam, 27
                         in Thailand and 11 in Malaysia. According to UNICEF, 1
                         million children are malnourished, 9 to 12 percent
severely so.
                         The high rate of babies with birth weight below 5
1/2 pounds
                         probably reflects the high malnutrition levels
among pregnant

                         UNICEF reports that maternal mortality rates for
1990 were
                         an astronomically high 580 per 100,000 live births,
                         with 80 in Malaysia and 10 in Singapore. Most
maternal deaths
                         in Burma are due to induced abortions, largely
                         clandestinely, and to unsanitary conditions. In
addition, there is
                         a widespread lack of essential medications, which
                         to the poor health status of the population.

                         There has been a slow but noticeable change in the
                         international community's stance toward Burma,
which makes
                         the goal of forcing out the generals appear within
                         Several companies have in the recent past pulled
out of the
                         country, while no new investments can come from
                         since President Clinton announced sanctions against
the junta
                         last May. If that tendency gathers momentum, the
                         economic situation may precipitate the general's
downfall. It
                         can't be too soon for the suffering Burmese people.

                         The writer is a member of the International
Advisory Board of
                         Physicians for Human Rights.