The Special Report17th June 2001
Thailand's Buddhists tend victims of an epidemicBy John Williams
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|CHIANG MAI, Thailand The woman with
AIDS lies on a mattress, tossing between sleep and blurred consciousness.
Her thin arms move in slow motion. Her wrists are looped in string bracelets,
Buddhist sacred threads tied to bless her recovery.
Pairat is 35. A younger looking woman, fanning her against the heat, is her older sister, Kongin. Pairat's husband died five years ago, almost certainly of AIDS.
Outside the window, life looks good. Sunlight sparkles on the many shades of greenery. Two boys run in and out of view, laughing and chattering. They are Pairat's sons Bancha, 8, and Banharn, 7. They look healthy enough.
Everywhere in Asia the fight against AIDS has produced remarkable people who devote their lives to helping others. Two of them are in this room now.
The man telling Kongin that Pairat needs rehydration fluids is Laurie Maund, 56, an Australian who has lived in Thailand for 32 years. A Buddhist before he left Australia, Mr. Maund is a professor at the Mahamakut Buddhist University in Chiang Mai.
From there he manages the Sangha Metta project for Unicef. Sangha Metta (the Compassionate Society) enlists Buddhist monks and nuns in the fight against AIDS. Buddhism's Four Noble Truths - suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation - underpin the program.
How did Buddhism become involved in the AIDS fight? "About a decade ago, Thailand was modernizing rapidly on the Western model that emphasizes the individual," Mr. Maund says. "Buddhism values the nonself, so the collision within society here was severe, especially for the young."
At the same time, AIDS was exploding in Thailand; in Chiang Mai alone, 44 percent of sex workers were infected with HIV. Public responses often combined ignorance with hostility toward the infected. "Thailand needed more understanding, compassion and community solidarity. As these are Buddhist values, it seemed natural that the temple should take the lead," Mr. Maund says.
The government also began a largely successful public awareness campaign. Knowledge about AIDS and attitudes toward those infected have much improved.
While the epidemic has slowed, 700,000 Thais remain infected. Unicef forecasts that the number of children whose mothers have died of AIDS will rise from 30,000 last year to 430,000 by 2005.
So far the Sangha Metta program has educated 1,500 monks and nuns in AIDS prevention and care. Much more remains to be done in Thailand, with more government help needed. Meanwhile the program is spreading. Cambodia is finalizing a national policy on the Buddhist response to its epidemic. Education programs have been held in southern China and on the Burmese border.
The woman alongside Mr. Maund is Somya Uthacan, a community AIDS worker. "After our daughter Piriya was born, my husband and I were both sick. People whispered that we had AIDS," she recalls. "I had a test; it was HIV positive. My husband refused - he said that if you tested positive you died, so what was the point."
Somya's husband died some months later. She was soon unable to walk herself, but hospital treatment and family care helped her to push HIV into remission. At 37, she radiates serenity and health.
Now Somya's life is devoted to helping others in trouble. She organizes a group at a nearby temple that helps grandparents care for their orphaned grandchildren and provides small-scale jobs for widows and infected women.
Is Somya's daughter HIV-positive? Somya glows. No, Piriya, now 8, is free of the virus.
Bancha and Banharn are chasing each other through the room where their mother lies. What about them? There is a pause as the question is translated and absorbed. Kongin responds. Yes, the boys are HIV-positive.
"Well, now we know," Somya says, as we drive away. "Maybe I can get some triple cocktail retrovirals from the hospital for the boys. They're very expensive and scarce, but I'll try. I'll try."
• The writer, a former senior Unicef official and now a free-lance writer based in Bangkok, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
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