May 11, 2005
A UMNS Commentary
By The Rev. Donald E. Messer*
places on earth more epitomize the conspiracy of silence that propels
the global HIV/AIDS pandemic than Burma. Renamed Myanmar by its military
dictatorship, a silent epidemic of explosive proportions is escalating
behind the Teak Curtain.
denial in the past decade has been pervasive. The junta claimed United
Nations’ estimates were exaggerated. Certainly the disease never would
spread due to the conservative culture and behavior of the people.
Condom usage was not only discouraged, but mere possession sometimes
deemed a reason for arrest.
poverty exacerbates the AIDS crisis among the 50 million people of
Burma. Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of
HIV/AIDS. During its 42 years of dictatorship, the Burmese leaders have
squandered the country’s resources, and their nation now is classified
as one of the least economically developed countries in the
to survive and serve behind the Teak Curtain are faithful Christians,
who for the past 10 years have worked ecumenically to combat the
HIV/AIDS pandemic, though they have received little support from the
outside world. United Methodists have an opportunity to respond.
Burmese government officials have broken their silence and announced a
nationwide HIV/AIDS campaign. The Ministry of Health welcomed Thailand’s
gift of generic anti-retroviral medicine to treat 200 patients for a
year, plus a million condoms.
a meeting late last year with theological educators in Rangoon (now
called Yangon), I saw far more public billboards warning citizens to
“beware of stooges” advocating democracy than alerting them to the
imminent threat of an international terrorist called HIV. When I asked a
well-educated, 19-year-old Burmese student whether he had received any
education about global AIDS, his crisp response was, “Never.”
Silence inevitably leads to more disease and death. Since the government
tightly controls all information, and the health infrastructures are
extremely limited, no one really knows precisely the prevalence of
HIV/AIDS in ethnically diverse Myanmar. Government statistics released
in 2003 citing 45,968 infected people proved radically lower than UNAIDS
estimates of 330,000 and possibly 620,000.
|A UMNS photo courtesy of Don Messer
The Rev. Donald Messer (far left) discusses the growing problem of HIV/AIDS during a visit to Myanmar (Burma).
Chris Beyrer of John Hopkins University has estimated that 687,000
Burmese, or nearly 3.5 percent cent of the adult population, were
HIV-positive in 2003. Hidden are any numbers of
AIDS-associated orphans but some projections suggest 40,000.
fueling Burma’s pandemic highlight behavior elsewhere in Asia but with
acute intensity in Myanmar. First, the practice of men who buy sex is
more widespread than generally acknowledged. Commercial sex
opportunities flourish openly in Yangon, and at least 50 percent of all
sex workers in Myanmar are believed already to be HIV-positive.
few Asian countries have reliable estimates of the number of people who
inject drugs, but it is known there is widespread needle-and syringe
sharing. At the heart of the Golden Triangle, Burma not only is
the world’s leading exporter of opium and heroin, but also has the
highest injected drug-associated HIV/AIDS rate in the world.
education about safer sex practices is not encouraged. Silence combined
with ignorance about how HIV is transmitted helps create a
“kaleidoscope of risk” since human behaviors interact in various ways. A
man, for example, may be infected by HIV from drug injections, and then
unknowingly pass it on to his wife or a sex worker. In turn, that
person may later have an unprotected same sex or a heterosexual
relationship that transmits the disease.
living with HIV/AIDS in Burma face an impossible dilemma. Traveling to
the outskirts of Yangon one evening, I sat on the floor of a wooden
shack literally sharing bread and water with persons living with
HIV/AIDS. For them, international talk of getting anti-retroviral drugs
to the poor is a cruel hoax. No matter how low the price, they could not
I bade farewell to my hospitable HIV-positive host, holding his
5-year-old daughter and 15-month-old son, my broken heart pondered their
future and the fate of hundreds of thousands more like them throughout
a breakthrough in the foreseeable future, the Burmese AIDS pandemic
will prove unstoppable and the genocide by indifference of Sub-Sahara
Africa will be replicated in South East Asia.
Burmese Christians and Buddhists are breaking the conspiracy paralysis
and discovering ways of reaching out in programs of prevention and
ministries of mercy. World Vision and the Myanmar Council of
Churches, for example, have dared to reach out to persons living with
HIV/AIDS, providing programs of awareness and education.
Faith-based groups lack funding but form a trustworthy cadre of
committed persons scattered throughout the country.
Christians are exorcizing their fears and expressing their faith by
confronting stigmatization and discrimination. Theological educators
from the Methodist seminary and other theological schools are working to
incorporate HIV/AIDS education into the training of pastors.
even are daring to examine some of the theological taboos that have
prohibited open sex information and education. Moving beyond a
simplistic AIDS theology equating disease with personal sin, focus has
shifted to the complexities of those “sinned against”—people imprisoned
by poverty, political oppression, gender inequality, and other societal
structures over which they have no control.
diplomatic wheels grind slowly toward a just political solution,
hopefully humanitarian interventions can be found to empower faith-based
groups to cope with this catastrophic crisis. The Burmese church lacks
full freedom to function, but its leaders and organizations provide an
important link to the outside world. By identifying Christian leaders of
integrity and courage, financial, educational, technical and prayer
support can be provided for their ministry.
provides United Methodists an opportunity to partner ecumenically and
with inter-faith groups of Buddhists and Muslims. Working not only with
denominational groups, but also the Myanmar Council of Churches, the
Association of Theological Educators of Myanmar, and the World Council
of Churches, United Methodists can strengthen efforts at incorporating
HIV/AIDS education into theological curriculums and continuing education
programs aimed at prevention and pastoral care.
our political contacts, United Methodists can continue to be advocates
for freedom and democracy in Burma, while at the same time urging
creative diplomatic ways to get desperately needed health care to the
impoverished. We can incarnate the injunction in Proverbs 31:8-9 to
“Speak up for those who cannot speak ... and defend the rights of the
poor and needy.”
*Messer is author of Breaking the Conspiracy of
Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis (Fortress,
2004) and Henry White Warren Professor of Practical Theology and
President Emeritus at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he
directs the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.