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French countess is key advocate for AIDS patients in Myanmar

Albina du Boisrouvray's charity provides healthcare and other aid in 15 nations. But helping in Myanmar required connections, pressure and perseverance.

April 07, 2013|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • French countess Albina du Boisrouvray founded the charity Assn. Francois-Xavier Bagnoud in honor of her late son.
French countess Albina du Boisrouvray founded the charity Assn. Francois-Xavier… (Mark Magnier / Los Angeles…)

SHWEPYITHA, Myanmar — After her heroin-addict husband died five years ago, Ei Ei Phyu discovered she was HIV-positive. She thought her life was over until friends directed her to the open-air clinic here where she receives antiretroviral medicine.

"This place has been a blessing," she said.

Phyu and thousands of other patients in Myanmar and beyond owe their health to a French countess, Albina du Boisrouvray, 70. Inspired by the memory of her late son and her inherited fortune, she created the charity Assn. Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, or FXB, and for two decades has been battling government restrictions, inefficiency and medical stigmas in 15 Asian, African and Latin American nations.

Among her more challenging venues has been long-isolated Myanmar, also known as Burma, where she has used connections, pressure and perseverance to chip away at barriers.

"I imagine they felt it was an honor to have a European countess come to Myanmar," said Dr. Aye Aye Thein, project coordinator at the FXB clinic in Shwepyitha, outside Yangon. "She's very attractive, has a way of getting around problems. It's hard to say 'no.'"

Du Boisrouvray, whose father hailed from French aristocracy and whose maternal grandfather was known as the Bolivian "Tin King," isn't keen to discuss titles, wealth and chateaux.

But she is quite happy to discuss brothels in Thailand, which led her to Myanmar in the early 1990s. A raid in Ranong province that she'd pressured Thai police into conducting — one of several FXB initiatives worldwide since 1990 aimed at tackling AIDS, education and child exploitation — freed several dozen underage sex workers, including eight HIV-positive Burmese girls. Told they'd been repatriated, she later learned that they'd been killed, their bodies dumped in the Moei River dividing Thailand and Myanmar. She accused Myanmar's generals at an international conference of complicity in the girls' slaying.

When a second Thai raid freed 95 more Burmese sex workers, half of them HIV-positive, she decided to visit Myanmar to ensure the young women's safety. The military government was furious about the public slight, however, and turned down her visa request.

For a year she fought back, eventually pulling French diplomatic strings to help secure a visa.

"I can be pushy," Du Boisrouvray said, dressed in a sari at a luxury hotel in New Delhi, where she was inspecting a project involving homeless children in railway stations. "If you put me out the door, I'd come through the window."

Rather surprisingly, Myanmar finally welcomed her. She later concluded that Thai police probably killed the women and the Burmese wanted to prove their innocence.

She decided to establish an FXB presence in the politically isolated country, following on earlier FXB clinics and village projects in Thailand, Uganda, Burundi and Bolivia, among others. But the path was often rocky.

Du Boisrouvray contacted Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's English husband, and got word back that the then-detained human rights champion sanctioned her contacts with the ruling generals, given the upside for the Burmese people.

Each time she worked with the government, Du Boisrouvray sought to reach out to pro-democracy activists. She named Suu Kyi to the board of a Harvard University health and human rights center she established, asking the government for permission to visit Suu Kyi and tell her about the selection.

The health minister excoriated her in Burmese. "You give me headaches," he concluded.

She locked horns with the government again when James Leander Nichols, the Scandinavia consul, a friend and British passport holder, died in prison in 1996, jailed for having two fax machines and assisting Suu Kyi. Outraged, Du Boisrouvray wrote a New York Times column urging tourists to shun Burma. She didn't get another visa for six years.

In 2003, Myanmar relented. She soon met with then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who realized that soldiers and ruling families also could be infected with HIV, Du Boisrouvray said. "They were sizing me up, decided they might as well get some of the money inside," she said.

The prime minister was soon pushed aside in a power struggle, however, and things again became difficult.

In recent years, as Myanmar has opened its doors to the world , FXB's aims have increasingly dovetailed with those of a government struggling to reform healthcare after decades of neglect.

The program includes medical treatment, women's support groups, job training, support for 48 HIV-positive orphans as well as administration of an AIDS education theater group and sale of crafts made by patients. In referring patients to state hospitals, FXB found that many Myanmar doctors knew little about HIV/AIDS, so it has helped to educate them.

In official meetings, she has praised government reform moves, she said, but has urged Myanmar planners to avoid what she sees as the West's mistakes, including environmental degradation and rampant consumerism.

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