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Burmese HIV rates growing

in MYANMAR, 08/06/2010

Cases of HIV/AIDS are on the rise among Burmese men who have sex with men (MSM)

MSM is a term sociologists use to allow for the fact that not all men who have sex with men identify as gay or bisexual. In some cultures, they may be married.

The MSM phenomenon is widespread in countries that have a strong social stigma against non-heterosexual sex, and limits the ability of governments to stop the spread of HIV.

According to the Burmese government, HIV infection rates among Burmese MSM stood at 29.3% in 2008.

That means that Burmese MSM have an incidence of HIV that is 42 times higher than the rest of the population.

Maung Maung Oo is a Burmese man who was forced to marry at age 24, when he had already been sexually involved with another man for four years.

Although he kept up his pre-existing relationship after he got married, it required him to live a double life.

Then, five years ago, he left his wife and three children so that he could live with his male partner.

However, he and his partner still keep their relationship a secret, hoping people will not know that they are living together as a couple.

Oo's partner requires him to pretend that he and Oo are brothers.

Oo said that his wife was shocked when she learned about his affair, but that he could not change the way he felt.

Ko Aye, a researcher who studied Burmese MSM about seven years ago, said that many MSM felt they needed to keep their identities secret.

He said that, despite more tolerant social attitudes, Burmese MSM felt uncomfortable revealing the nature of their sexuality to others.

According to the Burmese Department of Health, the MSM population in Burma was 280,000 in 2007.

Aye said that the stigma against MSM came from people's traditional beliefs.

Soe Soe, an MSM Burmese celebrity who works as a make-up artist, said that he believed his being attracted to men was the unfortunate result of his bad karma.

Aye said that, however, people did not usually accept that bad karma was causally linked to sexual orientation due to the proliferation of information via the Internet.

He said that, if some students knew their teacher was gay, they would still probably accept him as a teacher.

In Burma, there are many prominent entertainers who are gay, and they are publicly respected.

However, section 377 of the Burmese Penal Code prohibits homosexuality.

In 2007, an EU national was sentenced to seven years of prison in Burma for 'committing homosexual acts.'

Soe Soe said that, because of the stigma against MSM, he would not dare to join an 'MSM network', community-based organisation that aim to provide information and fight the spread of HIV, of which there are dozens.

Myo Tun, a sex worker who has an entirely male clientele, said that, whether society accepted MSM or not, people in MSM networks had to raise awareness about the high risk of HIV infection.

Both Maung Maung Oo and his partner have been diagnosed with HIV, and both have sought regular treatment.

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