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BURMA: Unconscionable attempt to oust AIDS hospice residents

BURMA: Unconscionable attempt to oust residents of AIDS hospice

One of the first trips that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made after her release this 13 November 2010 was to a privately-run hospice for persons living with HIV/AIDS in Rangoon, where she offered words of encouragement to residents.

Since then, the government has ordered that all of the 82 persons and their carers leave the hospice in Dagon Myothit (South) Township. In an article published yesterday, November 23, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that a doctor from the health department and team notified the persons at the hospice on November 20 that the conditions at the hospice were not hygienic and that everyone should move to the Special Hospital (Thakayta).

The timing of the visit from the health department, coming hot on the heels of the visit of the country's democracy leader, can hardly be coincidental, and attempts by the authorities in Burma make it look otherwise are utterly implausible. The hospice has been running for some five years without prior interference or difficulty caused to the local population, and there is no apparent reason that it should now suddenly be ordered to close other than that it hosted the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is one of three such premises set up by a group led by Ma Phyu Phyu Thin that began its work around 2002.

The description of the hospice in the newspaper, which creates the impression that it is a health hazard and a place in which no one would stay unless they had no other choice, is contrary to the accounts given by residents. In interviews with media based abroad, these persons have all said that they prefer to stay in the hospice, that they are happy there, have their food, medicines and other needs taken care of, and are otherwise pleased that they do not have to be hospitalized. Their statements have been confirmed by those from other sources, who have added that the hospice is being managed with the involvement of doctors and nurses who are HIV/AIDS specialists.

Their preference to stay at the hospice is unsurprising. The hospice is in most respects a far better institution for the care and treatment of persons living with HIV/AIDS than the type of hospitalization program to which the government of Burma adheres. Whereas in the latter, persons are isolated and treated as patients, in the former, they are kept in society and allowed to go on with their lives in a loving environment. Staff in public hospitals in Burma also routinely "charge" patients for services that they should be getting for free, including basic services like provision of medicines and bed space. The hospice is thus much more in keeping with international standards for the care of persons living with HIV/AIDS than the special hospital to which the government proposes that these persons relocate.

Rather than shutting down the hospice, the government of Burma should be learning from it and supporting it. If the hospice lacks space and supplies, the persons managing it should be invited to sit down and discuss with health department personnel about what the government can do to make the situation better. They should be discussing how this type of institution can be replicated across the country, rather than thinking in terms of hospitalization, which in any event can only address the needs of a small number of the hundreds of thousands of persons living with HIV/AIDS in Burma.

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls for a strong global response to the attempt to close this hospice, both as a matter of concern for the lives of the people directly affected, and also as a matter of principle. Under no circumstances should persons living with HIV/AIDS be made pawns in the political games of authorities in Burma, or, for that matter, anywhere else. They should continue to receive the best possible treatment, and have their own choices about where and under what circumstances to receive treatment fully respected. As the United Nations and a variety of international aid agencies have projects operating in Burma to address the incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country, the AHRC calls on these groups especially to use their contacts with government officials to make this position plain, and to ensure that the Dagon Myothit hospice continues to operate into the future.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

ENDS

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