October 25, 2002
"Thailand, once a festering sore of people infected with HIV/AIDS because of illicit drugs and a notorious sex trade, has made remarkable headway in beating back that deadly scourge. And it has been the Royal Thai Army that has led the charge as the Thais forged a consensus that HIV/AIDS was not just a medical issue but one of national security.
"...[Major General Suebpong Sangkharomya, a senior medical officer] asserted that without intervention, Thailand would have suffered 8 million cases of HIV/AIDS since 1984 instead of 1 million cases. He said the Thai army had seen a drop in the number of men entering the army who had symptoms of HIV/AIDS, from 3.7 percent in 1993 to 0.7 percent last year.
"...After the first cases of HIV/AIDS were found in Thailand in 1984, General Suebpong said, 'the official policy was generally to hush up the problem for fear of losing tourists and causing public panic.' Five years later, however, 'enough alarms had been raised to make people sit up and take notice of the disaster in the making.'
"The first action, as might be expected of military leaders, was to gather intelligence to determine the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Once having found the incidence among soldiers, the Thais gathered information on other groups at risk, such as students, factory workers living away from families and seafarers.
"...Thailand set about preventing new infections, treating those already infected, seeking help from abroad and initiating new research. Classes on AIDS were included in all military training, and warnings were directed at other groups. Testing was expanded. Leaders sought to foster a supportive attitude among the public to avert discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS.
"The Thai army doctor pointed to four lessons his compatriots had learned.
"'Prompt assessment and response is essential,' he said.
"Seeing HIV/AIDS as a national security threat was a key to success.
"All agencies in a nation must coordinate their anti- HIV/AIDS actions.
"'And the resources of the armed forces can be used effectively to help a country respond,' he said pointedly, clearly suggesting that the militaries of other nations could be catalytic in forging a national consensus to battle HIV/AIDS."
The author, a Honolulu-based freelance writer, specializes in US military and Asian affairs.