Christina Aguilera, Madonna and Ricky Martin were all present at the 13th National Aids conference, which was held on March 29 in Bangkok. Not physically but via their vocal talents as transgender and gay members of Mplus+ – a Chiang Mai-based NGO focused on HIV awareness and the rights of the MSM and gay community, put on a storming dance show to their music, for the opening of the three-day meeting.
This year’s theme was "Aids Rights are Human Rights, Join to Protect and Respond". By having representatives from a group whose entitlement to protection is not a given in Thailand, it was a great way to "respond". It was a performance better than most on American Idol and X Factor.
Unfortunately, the majority of people here whether they are from the MSM group or not, cannot access "health security"due to social discrimination and attitudes, based particularly on ethnicity, sexual preference and whether you work in the sex industry. The desire to address these issues has been felt by many, particularly by all the NGOs based in the Global Village, providing information about what they do while sitting alongside booths of HIV/Aids powerhouses such as the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-Usaid) and Unaids. I perceived this as soon as I stepped into the room, sensing the desire to help others while handing me an incredible amount of free condoms.
Politics plays a key role in human rights and Aids awareness, and its involvement was seen via a speech given by Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanavisit. It appeared he was a replacement for the Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who was expected to open the proceedings. Immediately, he highlighted how intravenous drug users (IVDUs) are an integral part of the harm reduction system that needs immediate support. He claimed that by using a "National Curriculum", HIV awareness will be increased amongst those most vulnerable in society, in particular the young. For example, IVDUs can utilise the national needle exchange programme, which is part of this curriculum.
Pongthorn Chanlearn, programme co-ordinator at Mplus+ and my translator, highlighted how this all sounded very good, but almost felt like old news, especially with former IVDUs chanting protest slogans while Minister Jurin spoke. This was not helped by the fact that the minister started pointing out that there are 10,000 new cases of HIV in Thailand every year (previously greater than 11,000), while strongly emphasising that 33% of the MSM population now have HIV. The way he pointed out these facts suggested he was almost blaming the MSM population for the high number of HIV cases. This was confirmed by the many disgruntled faces around me. All incredibly ironic, when this year’s conference focused on human rights, and from the get-go we had one sexual group already stigmatised by a politician.
By opening the conference in such a way, the minister further highlighted the large gap between politicians and those on the ground. This is not only in Thailand, but worldwide with those controlling funding dictating what should happen thousands of miles away, without really knowing where the focus of work should be. This appears to be felt by many here as well, as I spoke to many representatives from organisations such as Rainbow Sky and Youthnet.
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