SASAKAWA MEMORIAL HEALTH FOUNDATION
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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Myanmar's Path to Democracy

Appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of the National Races in Myanmar earlier this year, Yohei Sasakawa hopes his work in helping to bring peace to Myanmar will prove useful in his role as Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination.

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With Aung Sang Suu Kyi at her residence in Naypyidaw on July 28

Myanmar's transition from long years of military rule to democratic government is proceeding at a bold pace. Although the process is by no means complete, the constitution has been revised and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament.

The biggest challenge for building a democratic Myanmar is to end more than 60 years of insurgency against the government, waged chiefly by 13 armed ethnic groups, and achieve genuine peace. The cease-fire agreements that have been signed are a move in the right direction. I have met repeatedly with President Thein Sein and National League for Democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and they are in agreement on this.

For decades, The Nippon Foundation has been engaged in anti-leprosy activities in Myanmar. We have also built 200 elementary schools in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities and delivered medicine chests containing traditional Myanmar remedies for diarrhea, fever, colds and other ailments to 7,500 villages.

Because of our track record, Japan's Foreign Ministry appointed me Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of the National Races in Myanmar in June. My role is to work with the Japanese government to help ethnic minorities and assist in their true reconciliation with the Myanmar government.

TOKYO VISIT

On October 18, representatives from 10 of these ethnic minority armed opposition groups visited The Nippon Foundation in Tokyo for a briefing. The groups have been cornered by government forces in mountainous areas, creating about 1 million internally displaced persons. Conditions are harsh and there are shortages of food and medical supplies. The situation remains tense and difficult to clarify.

Fortunately, I have been able to build a relationship of trust with the various armed opposition groups. To spearhead the realization of peace, The Nippon Foundation plans to distribute US$3 million in food and medical supplies to areas controlled by these groups - the first time this has been done. If all goes well, we would like to request additional support from international organizations and humanitarian bodies. We also plan frequent fact-finding missions to these areas for monitoring purposes.

This brings me back to leprosy. Myanmar achieved the elimination of leprosy as a public health problem in 2003. But the situation is not at all clear in terms of case numbers and related issues in those parts of the country that have been in the hands of armed ethnic groups. This, too, is something I am keen to pursue as I engage with Myanmar.

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The deputy head of the United Nationalities Federals Council (UNFC), an umbrella organization of Myanmar's leading ethnic groups, and representatives of 10 of the 11 groups that make up the UNFC, meet with the Goodwill Ambassador at The Nippon Foundation in Tokyo on October 18.