Burma's public service suffering
http://news.bbc.co.uk/, June 2006
Burma's hospitals and schools are secretive
Much of what goes on inside these tightly
controlled buildings remains a mystery to the outside world.
But indications from the few people prepared
to risk speaking out paint a disturbing picture
One doctor described long queues of patients,
many with the classic diseases of poverty such as TB, malaria
and water-borne illnesses.
She said she was often unable to give
people the treatment they needed, because the drugs were either
too expensive or impossible to obtain.
"I get upset sometimes, but then
I'm also used to it - every day's the same," she said.
Burma's military junta has been ruling
the country for four decades, during which time many other South
East Asian nations have seen dramatic improvements in their economies,
government services and standards of living.
But many analysts believe that since it
came to power, the Burmese government has done little to improve
basic services, preferring to spend money on the military and
expensive projects like building a new capital.
The World Health Organization estimates
that Burma spends $10 per person per year on healthcare, compared
with its neighbours Thailand and Malaysia, which spend $160 and
One NGO estimated that the actual Burmese
figure was even lower - more like $0.50.
The results of such policies are obvious.
An estimated 150,000 Burmese children under the age of five die
every year of malaria, acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea.
"There is no question that the government
is not caring adequately for its people," one aid worker
Fight against HIV
Not all the news is bad, though. In the
past few years, the authorities have increased their co-operation
with local and foreign NGOs to tackle the spread of HIV/Aids -
and according to UNAids, there have been some concrete results.
Condom use has tripled since 1999, needle
exchange programmes are far more prevalent than a few years ago,
and more people are both seeking and obtaining treatment.
But Burma still has one of the most serious
HIV/Aids epidemics in South East Asia. UNAids estimates that 360,000
Burmese people are currently living with the disease - and other
organisations put the figure as high as 600,000.
Despite these successes, there is evidently
a long way to go in raising awareness, judging from one man who
was brave enough to talk to me about his experiences.
Not only did he risk the wrath of the
authorities - like everyone else I spoke to - he also risked exposing
himself to the discrimination that comes from having a disease
which is still seen as a taboo subject.
"There is a lot of discrimination,"
he admitted. "I used to share a flat with a friend, but when
he found out I had HIV, he made me leave.
"Another man I know used to own a
business, but when people found out, no one would buy anything
from him anymore."
The man I spoke to is somewhat unusual,
in that he is being given free anti-retroviral drugs - a rare
luxury in Burma.
"I am one of the lucky ones,"
he admitted, adding that many Burmese died of Aids without ever
knowing there was an alternative.
Education and propaganda
If little is known about healthcare, even
less is known about Burma's schooling system.
Because of past student uprisings, the
government sees schools and universities as potential hotbeds
of dissent, and is therefore especially vigilant at keeping them
free from prying eyes.
In fact, according to most of the teachers
who were prepared to speak, the government seems to put more energy
into stopping outsiders getting into schools than it does on educating
the children inside them.
"I have about 80 children in my class,"
said one woman. "I have to shout so everyone can hear.
Much of a teacher's time is taken up with
fulfilling government requests.
"I spent a lot of time being involved
in government propaganda," said a woman who left the teaching
profession last year in frustration.
"I kept being told to take the children
outside to wait for hours at a time, so they could wave flags
when important people came past."
The result is that many children leave
school without an adequate education.
There are glimmers of hope, though, for
even the poorest students.
A few charitable schools operate around
the country. One in Mandalay provides free education to nearly
Passing tourists are welcome to visit,
and foreign volunteers are actively sought to help teach English.
It is a refreshing change from the majority
of Burmese schools, where the doors remain firmly shut - not only
to outsiders, but also to the hopes of Burmese children who want
to improve their lives.