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WHO, Medical Workers, Mark Progress in Southeast Asia Malaria Fight

BANGKOK � Concerted campaigns in the Greater Mekong Subregion [GMS] to radically reduce the impact of malaria has lifted hopes a vital target to eradicate malaria from the region may be within reach.

Deyer Gobinath, a malaria technical officer with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Thailand, said the outlook is positive for eliminating severe forms of malaria across the region within the next decade.

The goal is for most of the GMS countries by 2025 to try and eliminate falciparium malaria � the most severe form of malaria � the falciparium malariia - and then by 2030 basically all forms or all species of malaria, Gobinath said.

In 2015, WHO leaders said there were 14 million malaria cases across Southeast Asia, resulting in 26,000 deaths. Globally, in the same year, the WHO reported 438,000 lives lost, mostly in Africa and warned that 3.2 billion people � almost half the world's population � face health risks from the disease.

Mortality rates decline; challenges remain

The campaigns in Southeast Asia cover Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all reporting consistent declines in mortality rates, by as much as 49 percent since 2000.

Populations most vulnerable to the mosquito-borne disease are largely in remote border regions, isolated from infrastructure and immediate medical support.

The key areas of concern lie in regions between Thailand and Myanmar � also known as Burma � and in Cambodia among others.

But Saw Nay Htoo, director of the Burma Medical Association, said collaboration between medics and local communities has had a positive impact in reducing malaria's impact.

In the ground level we set up the malaria [clinic] post which we have at least one malaria health worker, according to the population they have, to detect malaria, he said. And if there is malaria positive then the patient is given the malaria medicine. So we have been doing this for three years. It seems our program is going very well � there are less malaria cases in the border areas.

Combination of drugs

The fight against malaria is largely based on a combination of drugs known as Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy, or ACT, as the main line of drug treatment.

The World Health Organization's Gobinath said Thailand's medical infrastructure and funding support have all contributed to lowering the numbers of malaria cases.

For malaria in Thailand here's been quite a remarkable decrease � a steady decrease, decline in the number of confirmed cases of malaria. In the past 10 years or so something like 30,000 cases in 2012; to 2015 it was 19,000 to 20,000 cases. So it's been a gradual but persistent decline of confirmed malaria cases, he told VOA.

But he said for progress to be sustained it will require continued political will and commitment.

WHO officials said attention needs to focus on migrant worker populations moving across the region's borders. Thai health authorities have taken steps to enable medical access to migrant populations at risk of malaria, largely in remote border areas.

The battle far from over

But challenges remain, said Maria Dorina Bustos, a WHO technical officer with responsibilities for monitoring drug resistant strains of malaria across 18 countries in the Asia Pacific.

Dorina Bustos said the region with drug resistant forms of malaria is spreading. The Thai-Cambodia or the Thai-Myanmar border, you need to think about the Thai-Laos border because the Southern Laos drug resistance is also about evident � is documented, it is also there. And what is actually more alarming is happening in the Cambodia side, she told VOA.

She said drug resistance becomes evident in the delay in clearance of the parasite from the patient. Dorina Bustos says the use of fake drugs and self-treatment also opens the way to drug resistance.

What we are seeing in the last five years is that it is really emerging in the most parts of the region � initially just in the Western border of Cambodia and now it has also spread to the east and almost the whole country, Dorina Bustos said.

She said there is a need for close monitoring of major population centers � especially in India and Africa � to ensure successful treatment and avoiding issues of the use of fake medicines.

A positive note has been ongoing investment and research in new drugs, including commitments by major pharmaceutical industries.

It's really here in the Mekong where we really have a problem. Cambodia, the borders of Thailand, the borders of Thai/Laos and Cambodia/Vietnam � it's very specific in the Mekong region, she said. For Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and even India, Bangladesh and Nepal the ACT [Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy] is all working perfectly well.

Source: Voice of America

Myanmar Authorities Nab Illegal Drugs, Cattle at New China Border Checkpoint in Shan State

Authorities in Myanmar's northern Shan state have seized more than U.S. $1.5 million worth of illegal drugs, timber, and cattle at a new inspection station for transport vehicles that opened two months ago, an official who works at the checkpoint said Thursday.

They transferred the drugs, which were headed to China, from the checkpoint in Yepu to a police station in the town of Theinni, said Teat Tun Aung, deputy director of the inspection station.

Authorities also recently seized two trucks carrying illegal timber and cattle headed for China, he said.

Within two months of opening the checkpoint, authorities have confiscated illegally transported items, including 888 grams (two pounds) of heroin and 74 head of cattle, totaling 2.23 billion kyats (U.S. $1.62 million), he said.

We have seized illegal food that people shouldn't eat, clothing, household goods, shoes, cattle, snakes, Padauk timber, and some chemicals to make medicine, Teat Tun Aung said.

We have transferred the timber, cows, and snakes to the state Forestry Department, he said.

Authorities will transfer other items, including clothing, food, and household goods brought from China with illegal documents, to the Customs Department.

Shan state and neighboring Kachin state are hotbeds of illegal drug and smuggling activities where ethnic rebel groups�some of which take part in the illegal activities�have engaged in periodic hostilities with Myanmar's armed forces during the last few years.

Copyright (copyright) 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

Tech Firms Must Go Beyond Congo’s ‘Conflict Minerals’ to Clean Supply Chain: Study

LONDON � Abuses linked to mining in countries such as Myanmar and Colombia are being overlooked by technology companies focused only on eliminating "conflict minerals" from war-torn parts of Africa in their supply chains, researchers said on Thursday.

In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), competition for mineral resources has fueled two decades of conflict in its eastern provinces, including a 1998-2003 war that killed millions, mostly from hunger and disease.

Congo's supply of tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold - metals used in smartphones, batteries and laptops - has been under scrutiny since 2010, when U.S. laws required U.S.-listed firms to ensure supply chains were free from "conflict minerals".

Yet the same minerals are being quarried in areas controlled by armed groups � sometimes using child labor � in countries such as Myanmar, Bolivia and Rwanda, according to research published by Verisk Maplecroft on Thursday.

The problem for tech companies was being able to trace the metals used in their products to the source mine or smelter, the risk consultancy group said in a report.

"The problem is because this is so far down the supply chain, it's difficult for technology companies to know if those minerals they're using are coming from irresponsibly managed operations," said Stefan Sabo-Walsh of Verisk Maplecroft.

Sabo-Walsh told the Thomson Foundation that in the most extreme cases the minerals are excavated using forced labor in order to buy weapons and fund violence.

A convoluted process

After minerals are mined, they are sold to a middleman and usually taken to the country's capital, where the raw metal is extracted and blended with other metals, the report said.

The blend is exported to a country such as China and then transformed for use in tech products.

The complicated process "further muddies supply chain transparency efforts" for companies that strive to only use safe and ethical extraction, Verisk Maplecroft said.

Tin, which is used in tablet computers and smartphones, was ranked as having the highest risk for labor rights violations at illegal mines.

Bolivia, Myanmar and Indonesia, some of the largest tin-producing countries, pose an "extreme risk" for child labor at tin mines, the research showed.

Some smaller mines are not run by armed groups but still hurt the environment and local communities and are difficult to police, Sabo-Walsh said.

At illegal mines, waste water runoff often makes its way into local water sources, polluting the supply, he said.

"Organizations need to be aware of the bigger picture when sourcing minerals from different countries � otherwise they risk a consumer backlash or regulatory penalties from the raft of emerging supply chain legislation," he said in a statement.

Source: Voice of America

Myanmar Voters Get to Judge Economic Success in By-Elections

BANGKOK � Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is facing a crucial test in regional by-elections, with voters getting their first chance at the polls to judge the government's economic performance since taking office in 2015.

The 19 seat by-elections lie mostly in NLD strongholds for seats vacated largely by incumbents who joined the government in ministerial posts.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party was swept into office with strong popular support and hopes of economic reform after years of military rule and a five year transition under former president, Thein Sein.

Worry about the economy

The by-elections come amid concerns over the pace of economic progress after the NLD rode a wave of voter support in the 2015 national elections.

Aung Zaw, editor of on-line newspaper The Irrawaddy said signs of frustration are focused on policy implementation in Myanmar � also known as Burma.

If you look at the country, if you look at Burma, a lot of talented people, the youth population and they want to grow. And the business sector is wanting to grow but they are very disappointed. They've been very frustrated with the current slow pace of the government's implementation and they feel they are being held back, Aung Zaw told VOA.

Pace of growth disappointing

Myanmar's economic growth slid in 2016 to around 6.5 per cent, down from international banking houses' forecasts of over 8.0 per cent. But the World Bank, in a January report, said it remained confident of recovery in 2017.

The slower growth in 2016 was linked to consumer dampening inflation, exchange rate volatility, structural constraints and a lack of clear economic policy with declines in investment flows, including the impact from a slowing China economy.

Lower gas production and reduced industrial output, especially in food processing, also contributed to the lower outcome, the Bank said.

Myanmar remains an agriculture centered economy, where the sector generates 30 percent of national output and accounts for 60 percent of total employment.

Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi

Analysts and commentators say Aung San Suu Kyi's government faces a myriad of challenges, including electricity shortages, clarity of policy and the high cost of doing business in Myanmar.

Hong Kong-based political and corporate risk consultancy, Steve Vickers Associates, in a report said while there was a boost in foreign investment after the lifting of economic sanctions, imposed against the former military government, they said the outlook for Myanmar's economy was uncertain.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is struggling to meet popular expectations," which the report blamed on the military's ongoing influence over the government. And while people's frustrations at present "are in abeyance, but they may rise over the coming year," the report said.

Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based business consultant, said foreign investors are hoping for greater confidence in the government and its policy direction.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) fell sharply as new real estate legislation, policy uncertainties, and red tape curbed interest in one of Southeast Asia's fastest growing economies.

A number of factors that are putting off foreign investors, which has seen foreign direct investment (FDI) dip this year compared to last year by around 30 per cent it looks like. That is quite a significant dip at a time when Myanmar is running a high trade deficit and desperately needs foreign investment to balance the books as well as to drive growth, Horsey told VOA.

Government ministers enthusiastic

But government ministers are calling on investors to capitalize on the opportunities, including new investment laws geared to transparency and fairer ways to invest.

Finance and Planning Minister Kyaw Win recently told a business conference in Yangon the country was on the right track towards a stronger future for both domestic and foreign business.

He was quoted by local media as saying, We assure you that the government will be supporting both domestic and foreign investors in their endeavours: 2018 and 2019 will be when Myanmar will truly sprint head economically.

Officials at the March 19 event said the main sectors being targeted for investment include the oil and gas sector, electric power generation, telecommunications, manufacturing and real estate.

More disappointment in new budget

Earlier this month the parliament approved a Kt20.6 trillion (US$15.3 billion) budget, the first full budget under the NLD government.

The move was greeted with caution by analysts, with national reconciliation and peace as the main budget priorities. Allocations for education and health � seen as likely priority areas for voters � received allocations only slightly higher than previous years.

Other ministries, including planning and finance, electricity and energy and agriculture, livestock and irrigation received smaller shares than requested. The defense ministry was granted its full request of funds.

Horsey said foreign investors and business is looking to the government setting out a compounding economic vision.

To give foreign investors confidence in the economic stewardship of this government and the confidence in the direction that the government is taking this economy, Horsey said.

World Bank official optimistic

But World Bank senior country economist Habib Rab said a positive trend is seen in a gradual shift in investment towards manufacturing.

We do expect the manufacturing sector to grow, but subject to investment in [the] services sector and power sector, which would make manufacturing investment more attractive, Rab said when the World Bank released its recent report.

Foreign investment has increased in agriculture, especially in areas such as fertilizer, seed development and animal feed.

But Aung Zaw said people in rural areas are looking for policies to boost rural incomes as well as support from the government.

If those less [well off] people at the bottom [of the income scale] � if they start to see that they are benefiting from this government and policy, then we can say the country is moving into some sort of positive direction, he said.

Source: Voice of America

China Meets with Myanmar’s Ethnic Armies in Attempt to Quell Fighting

YANGON � China's special envoy for Asian affairs met with two groups of ethnic armies Tuesday in an attempt to quell fighting along the Myanmar-China border.

Recent fighting in the Kokang Region in Myanmar's Northern Shan State, near Chinese territory, has left dozens dead and sent a host of refugees fleeing across the border.

At the sessions in Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan Province, Sun Guoxiang met with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) � the largest armed ethnic group � on Tuesday morning before meeting with members of the Northern Alliance. That includes the Arakan Army (AA), the Kokant or Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The AA's Colonel Nyo Tun Aung told VOA Burmese that Sun urged an end to fighting, which was causing instability along China's border.

The groups that met with Sun had urged China and the United Nations to join the internal peace process overseen by Myanmar's de facto leader, Noble Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She wants to bring all ethnic armed groups into the government-sponsored peace process through the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement. None of the groups that attended the Tuesday sessions have signed the agreement.

China's concern about the fighting arises in part from its "One Belt, One Road" initiative, designed to improve regional access to world markets. Part of the multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project is expected to cross Myanmar on the way to a deep-water port in the Indian Ocean. Fighting in the Kokang region between the ethnic armies and the Myanmar military is disrupting the plan.

At both meetings, Nyo said Sun asked "what he could do" to mediate among the three parties � the Myanmar military, the ethnic groups and the Myanmar government.

"It's kind of a bridge process ... mainly because China wants the conflict resolved," Nyo said.

Hla Kyan Zaw, a Myanmar analyst based in Kunming, said, "I assume China will do whatever they can to have peace in the area."

Since late November, Myanmar and China have held two high-level meetings in which their foreign affairs ministries and defense ministries discussed border security.

In December, the four rebel groups and Myanmar officials were invited to Kunming, but talks fell through soon after the participants arrived.

Tension between the central government and ethnic militias in the northern region near China's Yunnan province erupted March 6 in Laukkai, capital of the Kokang special region and an important trading town on the Salween River, which forms Myanmar's border with China.

China has offered $3 million to support peace talks, and its diplomats are urging the government and all ethnic-group armies to sign an inclusive nationwide cease-fire.

Source: Voice of America