Humanitarian Aid Restricted in Myanmar

Isolated from the outside world since the ruling military junta came to power in 1962, the people of Myanmar (formerly named Burma) suffer from the consequences of repression and neglect. The crackdown on monks marching for democracy in September brought international attention to this long-suffering population, but it did not expose what ordinary Burmese go through every day.

Faced with high malaria and HIV rates, the impoverished population is provided with little assistance—only 1.4 percent of the regime's budget supports health-care services. In spite of the overwhelming need, there are few humanitarian aid groups working in the country and, for those on the ground, operating in an independent and impartial manner is difficult. Moreover, donor governments and agencies are reluctant to fund programmes that might support the regime.

Travel inside the country can require time-consuming visas, which can make responding to emergencies impossible and needs assessments challenging. In some regions, such as those gripped by armed conflict involving Karen and Mon rebels along the eastern border with Thailand, government restrictions have stymied humanitarian aid efforts, including MSF's.

Some of the largest gaps in health services are in the western Rakhine state, where MSF treated 210,000 people for malaria in 2006. Muslims from Rakhine state, known as Rohingyas, live in particularly precarious circumstances. Denied citizenship rights by the state, this group suffers numerous forms of abuse. MSF provides basic medical care and HIV/AIDS treatment to Rohingyas.

The slow response to the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic has fueled the spread of the disease. In Yangon, Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states, MSF offers comprehensive HIV/AIDS programmes, but these meet just a fraction of the need. While there is little independent information to shed light on the number of Burmese in clinical need of life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, of the UN-estimated 360,000 people who are living with HIV, only 10,000 are believed to be receiving ARVs. MSF provides ARV therapy to 8,000 of them. And even fewer have access to care for complicating diseases like tuberculosis. As a result, the UN estimates that 20,000 people die annually from HIV/AIDS.