ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13

He came, he spoke, he went

Asian AIDS expert hits out at President

By Lanelle Hills

The former president of the AIDS Society for Asia and the Pacific (ASAP) has hit out strongly at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s early departure, following his address at the opening ceremony of the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), saying the President failed to listen to those in vulnerable communities.“The voices of those in vulnerable communities and those with HIV have to come before Government speakers. The President has to listen to them before he leaves and it is not appropriate for politicians to come to a ceremony, speak and then disappear,” former ASAP president Prof. Dennis Altman said at the recently concluded 8th ICAAP.

Prof. Altman

Stressing that there was a lack of dialogue, he said the Sri Lankan President and the Health Minister were the trustees of the people but they did not speak or did not try to speak on their behalf.

Responding to this criticism Presidential Media Spokesman Chandrapala Liyanage said the President’s tight security was structured in such a way that he could not remain at the BMICH after his speech. Further, he said the President had other important engagements such as a Government party meeting to attend.

Prof Altman who was speaking to The Sunday Times on the sidelines of the five-day meeting said the focal point of ICAAP was the work being done with communities and not about “governments showing off.” He said traditionally governments played host, but did not own the conference.“The people who own the conference are those who are here,” he said.

But he praised Sri Lanka’s involvement in the meeting saying there was a long felt need to hold the congress in a low prevalence country, but more importantly to hold one in South Asia, with only one being held in Delhi and many held in South East Asia. He said after Japan and Australia, many countries in the Asia Pacific were developing countries and it was not “sensible to have conferences in rich countries”, while discussing the issues faced by vulnerable communities.

Prof. Altman who was involved in the decision making body that selected host countries for the congress added that despite the conflict in Sri Lanka, the country’s good relations with those in the region was a key consideration in selection. “There was also a feeling that Sri Lanka was neutral, in that people from India, Pakistan or even Bangladesh could come. Sri Lanka also has good air connections making it easier for delegates to fly into the country and there was an identified possibility of hosting the congress with the support of the Government and the NGOs,” Prof. Altman said.

The country’s peace process which at one point seemed more encouraging in 2004 acted as another catalyst for selection, he said.“We were hopeful that peace would come, and we thought it would be a wonderful thing to have a big conference in that context,” Prof. Altman said.

He said it was fortunate that security concerns at present had not stopped ICAAP and despite limited resources local organizers had done a good job, adding he thought the deciding body had made the right decision in coming to Sri Lanka Although it was hoped a thousand more delegates would have attended he was of the view that the emerging problems due to changing political situations in the country may have contributed to this fact, and described the military presence on the streets as being ‘unpleasant’.

A stark warning was echoed, when he said “if we had to make the decision to select Sri Lanka to host the congress this year, when the airport was under fire (attack), the decision would have been much harder.” But he also said a perspective was needed.“AIDS kills 6,000 people a day and we live in a world full of conflict. We can’t say don’t go anywhere where there is conflict, because if we say that, where else can we go?” he asked.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.