Peter C. Agre headshot photo
Image credit: Keith Weller, Johns Hopkins University

Malaria and Democracy in Myanmar

#SciDipTurns10 Myanmar malaria South and Central Asia

Ten years have passed since we wrote about bringing health research to a renewed U.S.-Myanmar relationship.1 That piece reflects our experiences as part of an AAAS delegation to Myanmar in April 2010 when we met with government ministers in Naypyidaw, members of the University of Yangon faculty, and members of the opposition; however, this did not include Aung San Suu Kyi, who was confined under house arrest.2  This meeting marked a time of great optimism in Myanmar, and a transition to democracy appeared imminent. Of particular importance was a plan for collaborative health research, including of malaria, which had beleaguered Southeast Asia for centuries.

Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest type of malaria, had grown resistant to chloroquine—a semisynthetic relative of quinine used widely to treat Plasmodium vivax, the common and less toxic form of malaria. During the Vietnam War, drug-resistant malaria was a major cause of morbidity affecting civilian and military populations. In a remarkable meeting among Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong with leaders of the North Vietnamese military, a plan to survey ancient traditional Chinese medicines for new agents to treat malaria yielded artemisinin—the miracle drug for which the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Tu Youyou of China. After the Vietnam War, development of artemisinin by pharmaceutical manufacturers proved it to be highly effective against malaria when combined with other drugs. Serious commitment to field studies of malaria by academic researchers and healthcare professionals funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research and coordinated with the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative coincided with large declines of malaria in Myanmar. Reported cases dropped drastically from nearly 700,000 cases in 2010 to 60,000 in 2020.

In 2011, Myanmar began a period of relative harmony. Loosening of restrictions by the generals led to democratic elections and a transition to democracy. In the 2016 elections, the National League for Democracy prevailed, with Suu Kyi as leader. But all was not smooth, as a brutal campaign against the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, brought criticism from within and abroad. In 2021, the military staged another coup, precipitating a national strike, and Suu Kyi was sentenced to prison on several charges, an action that has been condemned as politically motivated by many countries.

Regrettably, Myanmar is now highly unstable and may be on the brink of civil war. While it is disheartening to see this case of democratic backsliding ten years later, it is worth remembering a time in our world’s recent past when scientific achievement coincided with a period of relative peace. This was possible because of existing relationships between the two scientific communities, which is an important demonstration of the need to maintain and deepen relationships—regardless of political situations. Science diplomacy cannot reshape political systems, but it can encourage us to work together for the greater good.


  1. Ronald Daniels, Pe Thet Khin, and Peter C. Agre, “Bringing Health Research to the Renewed U.S.-Myanmar Relationship,” Science & Diplomacy, Vol. 1, No. 2, (June 21, 2012)
  2. After her release, Suu Kyi met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and congressional leaders in Yangon, which was followed by multiple meetings among Suu Kyi and Minister of Health Pe Thet Khin with President Ron Daniels and a high-level delegation from Johns Hopkins University.
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