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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
Burmese people.

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

[KEN, Human Rights]