Another Little Secret: HIV and AIDS in the Burmese Community

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

As you read the following article, to be published in May of this year by Reality Press, I hope you will consider donating money to the ATF here in Fort Wayne.  My parish and I are walking in the annual AIDS Walk and hope to raise money and awareness.  Thank you in advance for your generosity.  My donation site is:

The first Burmese refugees began coming to Fort Wayne almost 15 years ago, as the anti-democracy forces gained momentum, and the numbers have increased to the point that the Mon population here is the largest in the world outside Burma itself.  Many of these people do not speak English and are struggling to find and maintain employment in an economy that is ailing, to say the least.  Like other immigrant groups before them, the Burmese are a fairly close-knit group that takes care of its own, thus they can survive without knowing a lot of English.


At present, there are more than 4,000 Burmese people, including some who were relatively famous back in their homeland.  Add to that the fact that we now have three Buddhist temples, including one for the Mon people.  There are also two small Burmese grocery stores and a Burmese restaurant that attract not only native shoppers and diners, but a number of locals as well.  It would seem, on the surface, that the growing Mon community is doing well.

The reality is, though, that there are only a few Burmese people who have opened businesses of their own.  Most of them work low paying blue collar jobs, and as the economy continues to slow down, their jobs are the first ones eliminated.  Like other minority groups, the Mon have a strong work ethic, are willing to work long hours for little pay, and are not known for complaining.  Those who work with them say that they believe that this is the only way for them to integrate fully in their new homeland.

Culturally, the Mon people are more conservative than their North American counterparts, although they, too, are experiencing an increase in the number of divorces and the incidences of domestic violence.  Too, the stresses of trying to integrate into a new society have caused an increase in alcohol abuse and driving under the influence—something that is not new to immigrant communities integrating into this country.  These issues, and others, tend to remain in the shadows and are seldom discussed openly.  When the issue of HIV and AIDS impacts the community, there is a great deal of shame and embarrassment, and often immediate family members do not know the real nature of the illness of their loved ones.

Although the immigrants are living far from Burma/Myanmar now, there is a profound and lingering fear of what is happening on the home front.  The military junta that now controls the government has made many Burmese people leery of strangers, hesitant to fully embrace outsiders because of a constant fear that their community might be infiltrated by spies of the regime.  Add cultural reluctance to speak of anything sexual openly, and you have a situation that is ripe for human suffering on the parts of those with HIV.

In speaking to Kris Wise, Director of Client Services for the AIDS Task Force, I learned the story behind the sudden outbreak of HIV among the Burmese population.  Burma shares a border with Thailand and as the political situation in Burma continues to deteriorate, people have been fleeing over the border into neighboring Thailand, looking for a way to bring their families and loved ones to some measure of security and stability.  The UN currently administers several large refugee camps, but there are others that are administered by the Thai government.

Many people from Burma have fled across the Thai border and are now living in refugee camps.  It is estimated that approximately 100,000 people are currently living in the camps, and some of them are so relieved to be out of Burma, they do not complain about the deplorable conditions there.   Many of the refugees had to escape their burned out villages, wandering through jungles, stepping around land mines in the simple hope of finding safety and a meal. 

As the numbers in the camps continues to grow, and resources are stretched, shortcuts are taken in the way the refugees are treated.  Medical treatment is minimal, resources are limited and as a result, needles have been used and reused on numerous people.  This has led, predictably, to a sudden increase in the number of people being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.  According to Wise, there are Burmese women here in Fort Wayne who have been diagnosed and cannot imagine how they contracted the virus when they have been married, some of them, for 30 years to the same man and both of them have been faithful.  Some of these cry themselves to sleep at night, wondering how their escape to freedom could have gone so very wrong.  The actual number of those infected is not known, because of the cultural reluctance on the part of the Burmese to discuss the issue openly.  Even within their community, the stigma is so great, it is rarely, if ever, talked about.

We are, once again, in the month of May, the month of the annual AIDS Walk, and as a parish priest, I see a fair amount of apathy among my peers on a regular basis.  A decade ago, it was generally considered “enlightened” to realize that HIV and AIDS affect all strata within a society, that it is not a “gay disease.”  To my dismay, I am seeing a return to some of the anti-gay bias of the 1980s when people now discuss HIV and AIDS.  High school students with whom I have occasion to speak on the matter seem especially prone to this erroneous viewpoint.  To make matters worse, there seems to be an increasingly large number of gay and lesbian people themselves who have become immune to the idea of doing something about the pandemic.  These people have either abandoned all hope for a cure, or have simply grown tired of the constant uphill battle.  While the number of new diagnoses have declined in almost every state, the rate of new diagnoses in Indiana has not budged.  That is significant.  As someone who has seen the last ravaging stages of the disease, it is terrifying.

As this issue of Reality goes to press, and as we become more aware of a whole new population struggling with this virus, it’s time we create a new springtime for AIDS awareness and prevention.  With appropriate apologies to the Vatican, proper use of latex is not the cause of AIDS in Africa, nor is responsible sexual behavior ever morally wrong.  Until we mature past the parochial perspectives of our past and engage more consciously in the real world of disease prevention and education, nothing will change.  More people will have their worlds rocked by the news that they now carry the virus.  More people will die.  More wives will cry themselves to sleep at night, wondering how everything went so very wrong.




About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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One Response to Another Little Secret: HIV and AIDS in the Burmese Community

  1. Can you please send me your email address so that I can email you personally with an attachment that may be of use in the above, and future, situations.

    Lawrence Maund
    Project Manager
    Sangha Metta Project

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