Fight against malaria unites old foes in Myanmar

Thu Dec 18, 2014 12:05am EST
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By Astrid Zweynert

TA GAY LAUNG, Myanmar (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the middle of a bustling village hall in Myanmar's Kayin state, a government health worker pricks the finger of a child to extract a tiny drop of blood for a malaria test.

A scene unthinkable just a few years ago, it is now commonplace in an area that used to be blighted by armed conflict between the government and soldiers from ethnic groups fighting for greater autonomy.

The situation has changed since a January 2012 ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU) paved the way for government health workers to reach remote villages in southeast Myanmar such as Ta Gay Laung.

Their work is symbolic of the changes sweeping Myanmar, ruled for almost 50 years by a military regime until 2011 when the country installed a quasi-civilian government and emerged from international pariah status, experts say.

It is also one of the first fruits of the ceasefire and a fragile wider peace process that participants hope will bring stability to a country that is still grappling with inter-communal violence, human rights abuses and poverty.

"Before 2012, we could not talk, we could not sit at the same table. We were enemies fighting each other, killing each other," said Ed Marta, a doctor and official at the Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW), the KNU's medical arm.

"Now, we're able to cooperate and coordinate our work, with one single objective: to help people," said Marta, speaking in Hpa-an, capital of Kayin state.

Before the ceasefire there were few government health services in the state. For decades people in the area have relied on KDHW and other community-based organizations to provide crucial, albeit limited, healthcare.   Continued...

A government health worker takes a blood sample from a woman to be tested for malaria in Ta Gay Laung village hall in Hpa-An district in Kayin state, south-eastern Myanmar, November 28, 2014. REUTERS/Astrid Zweynert