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One of the most regrettable aspects
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 community 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 meetings. One of the physicians, Dr. Aung
Khin Sint, had been awarded 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
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
Thida 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 tumors. 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
government 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 because AIDS is an
important public health problem in the region in general and in Burma in
particular. In 1996 it was estimated that 500,000 people in Burma had been
infected with HIV. Of 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 neighboring 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 poor national health indicators.
The national infant mortality rate in 1995 was 105 for every 1,000 live
births, with wide regional 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 women.
UNICEF reports that maternal mortality rates for 1990 were an
astronomically high 580 per 100,000 live births, compared with 80 in
Malaysia and 10 in Singapore. Most maternal deaths in Burma are due to
induced abortions, largely conducted clandestinely, and to unsanitary
conditions. In addition, there is a widespread lack of essential
medications, which contributes 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 reach. Several companies have in the recent past
pulled out of the country, while no new investments can come from America,
since President Clinton announced sanctions against the junta last May. If
that tendency gathers momentum, the worsening economic situation may
precipitate the general's downfall. It can't be too soon for the suffering
The writer is a member of the International Advisory Board of Physicians
for Human Rights.
[KEN, Human Rights]