A report from PhD candidate Gillian Rollason.

Graduate Centre blocks thin

HIV/AIDS has killed around 30 million people since it was first detected in the 1980s. The emergence of the virus was marked by fear amongst doctors and patients; no one knew what kind of disease could infect and rapidly kill otherwise healthy young people and rip through communities. Today we know a lot more about AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it, but we still don’t know how to cure or vaccinate people and, despite understanding both treatment and transmission, every year 2.5 million people become newly infected and 7 million remain without the medication they need to stay alive.

In resource poor settings the situation is invariably worse; HIV is not just a medical challenge, but incorporates social, economic, cultural, gender, and development issues. In 2000 the United Nations Security Council, a body usually concerned with traditional military threat and defence forces, broke protocol and declared HIV/AIDS as one of the gravest threats facing the international community, citing its potential to decimate military forces and economies.  This research looks at the current intersection between HIV/AIDS and national security, and asks how two countries in Southeast Asia – Thailand and Myanmar – have responded to the epidemic.

By framing HIV as a threat to national security HIV campaigners attracted huge sums of financial aid as well as the political attention needed to mobilise an international response. But there are drawbacks to such an approach – does thinking about a virus, which is invisible expect for its human carrier, as a security threat create a stigma or fear toward HIV positive people? If so, are their human rights at risk as a result? Moreover, should the state or international community really be thinking about HIV as a matter of national security, usually the realm of narrow sovereign interests, or is it more appropriate to respond as a matter of broader humanitarian concern?

After an extensive literature review on Securitization theory (Buzan et al. 1998), I am undertaking extended fieldwork in Thailand and Myanmar, interviewing the people closest to the national HIV response in this country and gauging if and how security concerns have been part of HIV management. The results have been fascinating, although at times elusive. Given the cultural sensitivity surrounding transmission of HIV, which is commonly through sex work, drug use, and male homosexual relations, the work has invariably had a complex cultural dimension. Discussing matters of national security is also not without difficulties, particularly in Myanmar which is only now emerging from years of military rule.

In addition to meeting with government officials, this research has lead me to an HIV temple where Buddhist monks tend a museum of corpses, to the infamous red light districts of Bangkok, and to slum projects providing life-saving care for the poorest people living with HIV. Incorporating both anthropological and political studies, the thesis explores the relationship between HIV/AIDS and national security, looking from the rhetoric of the international community and governments, to the policy advocacy and ground level responses of civil society.

This research is undertaken as part of a four year PhD program with Swansea University College of Political and Cultural Studies and is supported by the British Economic and Social Research Council. 

 Gillian RollasonGillian Rollason is a PhD student in the Department of Political and Cultural Studies at Swansea University, and is writing her dissertation on the topic of the Securitization of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and the Philippines.  She is currently undertaking fieldwork in Thailand and Myanmar.