BANGKOK (Reuters) - The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has pulled its funding for programmes in army-ruled Myanmar, blaming travel and other restrictions imposed by the junta, the Fund said on Friday.
The Fund, which agreed in August 2004 to spend nearly $100 million over 5 years fighting all three diseases in Myanmar, said its decision was regrettable given the serious epidemics threatening the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
The former Burma, ruled by the military since 1962 and receiving little Western aid after decades of sanctions, has up to 610,000 people living with HIV/AIDS and one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world.
But new travel curbs imposed in July on U.N. staff overseeing Fund-financed programmes and bureaucratic hurdles to procuring medical supplies had violated Yangon's agreement with the Fund, said spokesman Jon Liden.
"Obviously we are extremely sorry and concerned that we have to do this," Liden told Reuters. "But you cannot work at this scale effectively if you can't even travel around to watch what you are doing".
Foreign aid workers in Myanmar criticised the move.
"Global Fund or not, the world should be providing assistance to this country. To abandon this country and its people, I can't see how it is justified," said a worker at one NGO that was due to receive $2.5 million from the Fund.
Liden said anyway that funding had not reached the point where it was supporting drug treatments for HIV/AIDS patients, meaning no one would be cut off.
The Fund said it had already disbursed $11.8 million in Myanmar.
The Fund -- an independent organisation of governments, business and private groups first proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2002 -- has so far committed $3.5 billion to more than 300 programmes in 127 countries.
In recent weeks other international NGOs and U.N. agencies have complained of restrictions on their staff and humanitarian activities in Myanmar.
The head of the U.N. World Food Programme, James Morris, flew to Yangon earlier this month to press for the free movement of aid workers and a lifting of barriers to delivering food aid.
It is the first time the Global Fund has withdrawn from a country in which it was working, and the move is likely to stir controversy within the NGO community.
Critics have accused the United States, a major contributor to the Fund and a staunch critic of the junta, of seeking to limit its activities in a country labelled an "outpost of tyranny" by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
They say the Fund's safeguards, aimed at ensuring monies go to affected people and not the government, are too restrictive and politicised the delivery of humanitarian aid.
But Liden said the system has worked well in 45 so-called "fragile" countries so far.
"They are not draconian. If you can't watch your own programme activities unhindered, that's not an unreasonable safeguard," he said.
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