Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Aid policy harms border Burmese: activists

Lobbying ... Charm Tong and Cynthia Maung will meet the parliamentary secretary for international development tomorrow. Photo: Andrew Meares

By Connie Levett Foreign Editor

(SMH) -THE Australian Government's policy of not allowing aid funding for cross-border health care may be costing hundreds of Burmese lives, say two Burmese health and human rights activists.

About 500,000 Burmese villagers live near the Thai-Burma border, with no access to Burmese health care, after fleeing a decade-long military campaign to drive them from their homes.

Two activists, Charm Tong, 27, and Cynthia Maung, 50, who were nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 2005, will meet Bob McMullen, the parliamentary secretary for international development assistance, tomorrow to press the Government to change its policy and allow AusAid to fund their cross-border work.

The British Government changed its policy last year to allow the cross-border funding, bringing it into line with the US, Canadian, Norwegian and Danish agencies.

The women said the military attacks had continued to create new waves of displaced villagers. ''Unless AusAid changes its policy to one of supporting health workers treating people in eastern Burma, hundreds will needlessly die,'' Dr Maung said.

The sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi last week to a further 18 months of house arrest was a small example of the regime's brutality towards its own people, the women said.

The American John Yettaw, whose visit to Ms Suu Kyi's home led to the latest house arrest, was in Bangkok yesterday after a US senator, Jim Webb, secured his release. Speaking in Bangkok, Senator Webb said that Ms Suu Kyi is ''not opposed'' to the lifting of some sanctions on the junta in Burma.

Ms Charm Tong said ''the international community see what happens to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi but who is watching what is happening on the ground when there is no media coverage? This reflects the brutality of what the regime does and why the international community should not tolerate it.''

Ms Charm Tong, who fled Burma's Shan State as a six-year-old, is a long-time campaigner for her people. At 16, she addressed the United Nations Human Rights Commission on the military's use of systematic rape as a weapon of war. In 2005 she was invited to the White House by then president George Bush to discuss human rights abuses in Burma.

Dr Maung, who started her clinic in Mae Sot, on the Thai-Burma border in 1989, provides community health care for 300,000 refugees and internally displaced people. The clinic has trained 80 medical teams of three to five Burmese health workers who cross the border, carrying backpacks full of medicine, to provide the only health care available to the displaced villagers.

AusAid's budget for Burma last year was $16 million, of which $1.2 million went to refugees in Thailand, said Ms Charm Tong. ''The clinic's 2009 budget for the backpack health worker teams is 31 million baht ($1 million).''

''These IDPs [internally displaced persons] are in an area where the UN cannot access them, not allowed to,'' she said.

with agencies

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