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Dec 1, 2009 (DVB), The Burmese government marked World AIDS Day today with an article in state-run media linking the disease to "socially unacceptable behavior", despite warning against stigmatizing AIDS sufferers.
"AIDS poses a grave threat to the whole mankind and, to stop the spread of the disease, there is no other way but prevention," said the government-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper. "Transmission of the disease is directly or indirectly related to socially unacceptable behaviour."
In the same breath, however, it reiterated the motto of the day: "Avoid Stigma & Discrimination: Access to Services for Everyone".
Experts have warned that the subject of HIV/AIDS remains taboo in a country in which one in three gay men and 18 percent of female sex workers are HIV positive, according to the United Nations.
Public discussion of the disease is scarce, and discrimination against homosexuality remains common. Although rarely enacted, homosexual activity is still technically punishable under laws introduced during British colonial rule in Burma.
"There is a lot of misinformation about HIV/AIDS in Burma," said Aung Myo Min, from the Thailand-based Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB).
"The government claims that it is a kind of social disease; that you are not faithful to your partner and you have many sexual partners. They think it's a social sin."
As a result of the stigmatisation, he said, there is little awareness-raising about the true causes of the disease, which likely contributes to its prevalence in the country.
"That's why they need to have a freer education, not only to understand the disease better, but to tackle these sorts of social stigmas," he said.
Despite worrying statistics for marginalized populations in Burma, such as homosexual men and injecting drug users, the recent UN report found that overall the disease had leveled off in the country.
Current rates of infection stand at around 0.7 percent of the population, nearly 240,000 people, a drop from one percent in 2000.
The article went on to claim that "the government is fighting AIDS with the use of manpower and financial power", despite the World Health Organisation estimating that the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) spends only 0.3 percent of its annual budget, or $US43 per person per year, on healthcare.
The Global Fund, an international umbrella organization that provides funding to fight malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, announced last month that it would resume funding to Burma after a four-year hiatus.
The organization had withdrawn in 2005 after the Burmese government placed tight restrictions on the movement of its staff inside the country, contrary to written agreements.
Around $US15 million will be provided by the group over the next two years to NGOs inside Burma.
Reporting by Francis Wade