HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is a stealthy killer. Although intravenous drug users are especially vulnerable, it reaches most of its victims through acts of sex. Once in the body it may sleep secretly for years before striking. It finds willing accomplices in public denial and, in countries such as Thailand, a pervasive sex industry. There, the disease has spread to hundreds of thousands of Thais in less than ten years—as HIV positive prostitutes infect their male clients and they, in turn, infect their girl friends and wives and, through the infected mothers, their newborn infants. For years, as this crisis slowly mounted, few in Thailand took heed. MECHAI VIRAVAIDYA was an exception.
An economist by training, MECHAI began his career with Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board. In 1974, he founded the Population and Community Development Association, or PDA, which pioneered in community-based family-planning services and training, eventually reaching 16,000 Thai villages. In MECHAI’s successful program, respected local persons imparted the benefits of fertility management to neighbors and made contraceptive methods easily available. Meanwhile, MECHAI’s penchant for humorous and uninhibited publicity demystified birth control and made his own name popularly synonymous with the condom. Working with government, PDA’s initiative helped reduce Thailand’s annual birthrate by half between 1968 and today.
MECHAI also led PDA into a wide range of other projects to improve rural life and foster self-reliant development—primary health care, water resource management, reforestation, drug rehabilitation, and credit cooperatives. Working with numerous international funders, PDA became Thailand’s largest NGO.
The first case of AIDS in Thailand was reported only in 1984 and, for a time, the number of known carriers was small. But MECHAI was aware of the disease’s explosive potential. In the face of government complacency and opposition from the country’s lucrative tourist industry, in 1987 he launched the first mass campaign to educate Thais about AIDS. He warned that without intervention, over a million could be infected within a decade. PDA flooded the country with audio and video cassettes, books, and pamphlets bluntly explaining the risks and how to avoid them. MECHAI’s provocative publicity stunts captured headlines. He found an ally in Thailand’s military, which broadcast anti-AIDS messages on its radio and TV networks.
A new government in 1991 took MECHAI in. As a senior minister, he mobilized every government agency to fight AIDS and helped formulate Thailand’s National AIDS Plan—the most comprehensive government response to the AIDS epidemic anywhere in Asia today. In relaying his message, MECHAI is consistently nonjudgmental. Part of PDA’s AIDS information campaign aims to create a supportive and nondiscriminatory environment for HIV victims in the workplace and community. Although he has advocated regulating Thailand’s sex industry, he cautions that, in this realm, “coercion has never worked.”
A private citizen once again, the ever-imaginative MECHAI is now piloting PDA’s latest venture. It enjoins Thailand’s biggest companies to “adopt” rural villages and create income-generating projects there. MECHAI hopes to wean rural families from sex trade remittances and to create opportunities for their daughters to enjoy a decent livelihood at home.
There are no borders where AIDS is concerned, warns MECHAI. His advice to neighboring countries is “react early, react strong.” Moreover, private citizens must take the lead. “Don’t think that the government will think for itself,” he says. “We have to push from the outside.”
In electing MECHAI VIRAVAIDYA to receive the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his mounting creative public campaigns in Thailand to promote family planning, rural development, and a rigorous, honest, and compassionate response to the plague of AIDS.