RANGOON — The number of people in Burma living with physical disabilities is on the rise, advocates for the disabled say, with an increase in traffic accidents and land mine explosions to blame.
“Violence and accidents are happening more frequently and because of this, the disabled population in the country is increasing annually,” said Aung Ko Myint, a founder of the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative and president of the Myanmar National Association of the Blind.
As the country’s road network has expanded and automobile ownership has risen—aided by a lifting of import restrictions for foreign vehicles in October 2011—traffic accidents have more than doubled since 2001, from 4,478 accidents that year to 9,339 in 2012, according to government figures supplied to the World Health Organization. Over that period, injuries from the accidents have risen from 6,938 to 15,720, the data show.
At the same time, decades of civil war have left the ground strewn with land mines in some of the country’s ethnic conflict regions. The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor said in a report published late last year that nine of Burma’s 14 states and divisions were believed to contain land mines. From 1999 to 2012, more than 3,300 people have been injured or killed in land mine blasts, according to the Monitor, an initiative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
“Anyone can find themselves living with a disability, so people need to have discipline to avoid traffic accidents and also need to be educated on health matters,” Aung Ko Myint said, adding that the country’s underfunded health care system also bore some responsibility for the rising population of people with disabilities.
Soe Maung, a President’s Office minister, said in October that 2.3 percent of Burma’s population, estimated between 50 and 60 million people, are physically impaired. The figure was based on a National Disability Survey by the Ministry of Health released in 2010.
“All training schools for disabled people are full and many children who are born with a disability and elderly people who are disabled due to disease or an accident are waiting to attend training schools,” Aung Ko Myint said, adding that there were about 15 special education training schools for the deaf, blind, physically disabled and intellectually disabled in Burma.
He said up-to-date statistics on Burma’s disabled population do not exist, adding that it was hoped that a national census to be conducted later this year would shed light on the true size of the country’s disabled population.
“Although the number of disabled persons increases year after year because of land mines and weak health services, the fact is that the actual number of disabled citizens is not well known and is only now coming to light,” said Myat Thu Win, chairman of the Shwe Minn Tha Foundation, which focuses on assisting people with disabilities.
He said inadequacies in health care provision led to a high rate of children born with disabilities, often the result of malnutrition while in the mother’s womb. Poor health care also leads to handicapping circumstances for elderly patients who are afflicted with medical conditions that would otherwise be perfectly treatable in countries with more developed health care systems, Myat Thu Win said.
“Poverty and disability are directly linked,” he said. The Shwe Min Tha chairman said that contrary to the 2010 government data, Burma’s disabled were more likely to number in the range of 8 to 10 percent of the total population, or some 5 million to 6 million people.
The Eden Center for Disabled Children echoed that estimate, saying about 10 percent of the population was likely physically disabled to varying degrees.
Advocates like the ECDC say disabled citizens in Burma are in urgent need of basic opportunities in education and employment, and handicap accessibility to buildings and transportation infrastructure must be improved.
An adjustment to popular perceptions might also be in order.
Aung Kaung Myat, a 20-year-old paraplegic, told The Irrawaddy that Burma’s disabled are often stigmatized and excluded from society. “We are not getting on well, socially. People think that we will make them unlucky and that we are disabled because of deeds carried out in past lives,” he said. “It is used to justify their unwillingness to help us. This superstition is still present.”
Burma held its first arts festival for the disabled in October, and next week the capital Naypyidaw will host the 7th Asean Para Games for athletes from Southeast Asia with physical disabilities. Burma plans to send 213 participants to compete.
Burma will also host a regional Asean festival for disabled artists later this year.