Suu Kyi Raises Issue of HIV on Australia Tour

By Samantha Michaels 2 December 2013

RANGOON — Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has called for greater respect and compassion for people living with HIV.

Speaking Sunday to mark World AIDS Day, Suu Kyi, an ambassador of the UN program on HIV, compared her own fight for freedom with the struggle of patients infected with the virus.

“Many people have shown me compassion when I have needed it the most. In my darkest moments, respect and dignity have given me courage,” she said in a public service announcement launched by UNAIDS. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and lawmaker was appointed last year as the UNAIDS Global Advocate for Zero Discrimination, with the goal of boosting international efforts to combat the stigma of living with HIV.

“You and I, we can make a difference by reaching out and letting people lead a life of dignity,” she said.“Together we can reach zero discrimination.”

Also on Sunday, Suu Kyi joined UNAIDS director Michel Sidibé for a World AIDS Day event in Australia to unveil a new campaign to fight intolerance.

“For the first time we can see an end to an epidemic that has wrought such staggering devastation around the world,” Sidibé said at the event in Melbourne at Government House, the office and official residence of the governor of Victoria, according to a statement by UNAIDS. “But make no mistake, stigma, denial and complacency are still among us, putting us in danger of failing the next generation.”

Suu Kyi was in Melbourne on the final leg of a five-day trip to Australia, her first visit to the continent. With stops in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, she met with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, made a number of speeches and offered advice on Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

Australia is now counting down to the 20th International AIDS Conference next July, a major global health and policy conference to be held in Melbourne that is expected to draw delegates from nearly 200 countries.

“This is the premier gathering of people working in the HIV/AIDS field, people living with HIV/AIDS, policy makers and activists,” Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said Sunday during an introduction for Suu Kyi in Melbourne, according to a transcript published on Bishop’s official website.

Of the democracy icon, she added:“Her work for the Burmese people in promoting freedom and democracy, her peaceful campaigning, has made her a global icon, and with all that she has on her plate for the Burmese people, as leader of the National League for Democracy, in facing some challenging times in the years ahead, she has nevertheless agreed to be UNAIDS ambassador for zero discrimination.

“Her work in Southeast Asia fighting against discrimination for people living with HIV/AIDS, her work in promoting early screening and testing and other programs, has been a model for us all.”

Bishop added that Australia has invested about A$1 billion (US$915 million) over the past decade in HIV-related programs in the region.

World AIDS Day is commemorated annually on Dec. 1.

According to statistics released by UNAIDS last month, 35 million people globally were living with HIV in 2012, including 4.9 million people in Asia and the Pacific.

Over 20,000 people are living with HIV in Australia, compared with about 200,000 people living with the disease in Burma.

In the Asia-Pacific region, there has been a 26 percent reduction in new HIV infections since 2001, according to UNAIDS, and some countries—including Burma, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Thailand—have reduced new infections by more than 50 percent.

However, the annual numbers of new infections have remained largely unchanged for the last five years, and emerging epidemics have become evident in some countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, where new HIV infections more than doubled between 2001 and 2012.

In Burma and elsewhere in the region, populations most at risk for HIV are drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men. These people often face discrimination, including in access to employment, and many struggle to access adequate treatment.

All countries in the Asia-Pacific have at least one law that hinders the AIDS response, reports UNAIDS, which says 37 countries criminalize some aspects of sex work, 18 countries criminalize same sex relationships and 11 countries have HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay and residence.

In Burma, only about 40 percent of those who required antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV were receiving it at the end of last year, according to medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières, the first and biggest provider of ART in the country. Nearly two in 10 people living with HIV in Burma have reported being verbally insulted as a result of their HIV status, while one in 10 reported physical assault, according to surveys by UNAIDS.