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Interview with Mechai Viravaidya

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  • "We called the birth-control pill the family-welfare vitamin"
  • "We really owe a great deal to the rubber tree"
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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- DR: This is Talk Asia. I'm Dan Rivers. I'm with Thailand's "Condom King," Mechai Viravaidya. Thank you for talking to us. People credit you with slashing the AIDS infection rate in Thailand, I think from something like, I think it was up at 140,000-plus cases per year in 1991, down to about 20,000 in 2003. Remarkable success, far more than the neighboring countries. That must be very gratifying for you.

Thailand's "Condom King" Mechai Viravaidya

MV: Gratifying yes, because it worked and frustrating in that, it's so simple yet it's not being done elsewhere. And even in Thailand, we were very, very successful, and World Bank recently said that we had been able to prevent about 7.7 million Thais from being infected. Imagine where we would be today. So, luckily it worked. But the sad part is that people forget, unfortunately. The government during the last five years, is totally asleep at the wheel; no public education, no distribution of condoms. So the rate's going up again but not as badly as before, but in particularly among youth. Youth are having unsafe sex and no public education, no sex education going on, so we have to come back and redo it again.

DR: People have suggested that other countries in the region, particularly India, need a Condom King, a Mr. Condom like you. Would you agree?

MV: Well you probably need quite a few. And maybe you need five-10 of them. You can go to the sports industry in India. Imagine if Tendulkar, the great cricketer, hits a six and pulls out a condom, the whole world would look at it, India would certainly look at it, and you have Bollywood, you can also do that, but we've been thinking inside of the box, we got to think outside of the box.

DR: What kind of resistance did you come up against in Thailand, because Thailand is quite a traditional society in many respects, when you first started promoting safe sex and condoms?

MV: I started 33 years ago, and of course, Thai society was very conservative. One didn't talk about sex, one didn't hold hands in public, but what I felt we needed to do was to say we need family planning. We even changed terminology. We called the birth-control pill the family-welfare vitamin. We got Buddhist monks to be involved. We did a study into Buddhist scriptures and a quotation from Buddhist scriptures said birth caused suffering. To prevent birth also means to prevent suffering, so we got religion on our side. And then [we] said we're trying to give you the right and opportunity to space your children the way you space your coconut trees, the way you space your rubber tree, would you like that? If you would, here's the way to do it. And that was the way we went about it and we got people at the grass-roots to be involved.

This is what happened and they came aboard, they were involved, they explained it to people, everyone liked it, it was not seen as a government program. It was close cooperation between government and non-government organizations and a lot of people, grass-roots involvement, and it succeeded. So Thailand went along with us. I didn't get any opposition from parents. I did have some warnings from elderly ladies who thought that they knew Thai society and said, "Mechai you doing this. It may be bad for the young people. They might be interested in having sex." And I knew that they were already interested in having sex, so I said, "Yes, yes, I apologize but I'm very young and I've not learned anything. Thank you for your advice." And they were happy and I went back and did exactly the same thing. As long as you recognize them, that was the issue.

(Walk and talk)

DR: We are on a very noisy street of Pattaya today, tonight, you're handing out condoms which is what you've become famous for. Why's it so important for you to get out, do what you're doing now?

MV: We have to save lives, people forget, and there are new people on the scene, and we want to save everybody's life, and we can do that with information on condoms.

DR: Mechai, condoms in Thailand are actually known as Mechai's in all the places...

MV: I am fairly happy about it, they can use my father's name too if they like.

DR: Why are you so obsessed with getting tens of thousands, millions of condoms out into clubs like this?

MV: This is the only thing that save lives, from HIV, except for abstinence. It's just what works for most people.

DR: What's the reaction normally? Most people seem pretty happy...

MV: They're actually quite happy about it, whether they're Thais or non-Thais, you probably witnessed walking by, once in a while, we get people saying "I don't need it," but generally it's a very positive attitude, and we need this more around the world.

DR: And it's all done in, I mean, all of your lovely helpers here all dressed in condoms, all done with pretty good humor.

MV: Santa Claus, cops and rubbers, and everyone's jolly.

DR: What about the critics who say you're sort of encouraging people to have sex, by going around handing out people...

MV: People were having sex before I was born. My parents had sex before I was born, nothing to do with me. I'm not trying to stop sex. I'm trying to stop people from dying from sex.

DR: And your best weapon in this war is a condom, right?

MV: The condom has saved so many lives and it'll save so many more lives. We really owe a great deal to the rubber tree.

DR: Do you feel people here have taken this message on board? Because the HIV-infection rate has dropped significantly in Thailand, right?

MV: We still have to remind people, that AIDS is still around. Therefore, you have to practice safe sex. We have to keep on reminding, reminding and reminding, because the human recall factors are very short.

DR: Do you find the religious lobby here are prudish about this or disapproving of what you're doing?

MV: I have never had any opposition in the last 33 years in family planning or in HIV/AIDS from any religious group in Thailand, be it Buddhist, Muslims, Christians or Catholics, no opposition, because we made the statement very clear that we are trying to help people, we're trying to save lives. You'll see that everyone is feeling good-natured about it at all.

DR: Yeah, absolutely, I mean I wonder if you try this in London or New York, if you'd get quite the same reaction.

MV: Probably not, but it'd take time, again, we've been doing this for 30 years, first in family planning and later on in HIV/AIDS for the last 18 years. But the problem is that we don't go enough. We have -- can have -- more resources, we can do so much more and so many people want to work with us, some want to help us also. Some presents for everyone, Christmas time!

DR: Does any of this depress you, when you kind of look around and see the town of Pattaya? It's pretty seedy, isn't it?

MV: Well, firstly, why the people choose to work in commercial sex? Lack of education, lack of opportunity. So it tells us that we have to do a lot more on educating people, in providing opportunity in the villages, so they wouldn't have to migrate and earn their living this way. But we can change it. The numbers of people working in commercial sex has come down. But that's not enough. We have to do a lot more. Most people don't want to work in commercial sex. They have little choice.

DR: So Mechai, you're not just an anti-AIDS activist, are you? There's a lot more to it what you do and this resort, is a great example. Tell us about Birds and the Bees.

MV: My work and the association's work is to provide opportunity for people who lack opportunity to have a better life as a whole, and what happens is that we run out of money. All the NGOs run out of money, so therefore what we have to do is to have an arm that earns money as well as an arm that spends money. So this resort is part of our business, which pays tax. We call it a business for social progress. We have hotels, we have resorts, we have restaurants, we have instructions and so on. And the purpose is to raise money, profits and give it to our NGO, so that we don't have to depend on the same donors forever. They have other needs, there are other needs of other NGOs, so the NGOs have to learn to help themselves and I think this is a way donors can help a lot, to say look, I'll give you money, to train you and provide you with some funds as some loans some cash, to get a business going, so one day, you can help yourself, and even begin to help somebody else.

DR: And the idea is that every cent of profit from an enterprise like this is plowed back into other projects?

MV: As a business for social progress, we keep reserve for expense and the rest are all for charitable purposes and people who work here feel very, very happy about it, because they know where the profits go -- not to the fat cat, not to Mercedes-Benz, or first-class air ticket -- but toward education, toward scholarships to provide people living with HIV, with a loan or fund, with a better life for all sorts of people. And it's a great feeling, they love it.

DR: Ok, Mechai, your family owns this land from way back.

MV: Yes, about 60 years ago, and passed onto me and passed onto my daughter. But she holds the land, but the businesses and the profits all go to charity, it's a good feeling.

DR: And you use to come here as a kid.

MV: As a kid, yeah, there was a house here, and the trees. Some of them are the same size as when I was a kid, so it's still there.

DR: And the great thing is the whole resort is sort of a camouflage, isn't it?

MV: Yes, it's very green. We have to be very, very, very environmentally friendly, because it's good that it makes profit, and make friends, so why not do it?

DR: So this is one of your beach bungalows, and everywhere there's a message of safe sex.

MV: Yes, and that's why we want people to feel that there are many ways of doing it, tasteful ways, interesting ways, and of course now we encourage condoms in a mini bar.

DR: And there's even condom coffee mug.

MV: Yes, you can see the coffee mugs have different sorts of condoms on it. We have many many types, and there are very popular item for sales and all of the shops in Bangkok and elsewhere, and even in Japan.

DR: Do you ever worry that, this is a family resort, that people are going to bring their children here, that people would find it slightly embarrassing. It's a bit in your face, all the sex education everywhere you look.

MV: Actually, I have had the opposite comments that parents are saying, "Thank you very much for teaching my kids something about reality of life." There was one man from Switzerland and said his wife was somewhat embarrassed about it, could I change the name of the place? And I said, "Why don't you change your wife instead?"

DR: And how did that go down?

MV: Oh, he smiled. I think they're still together and she stayed on for three more days. They eventually understand.

DR: So people don't sort of get offended, really.

MV: We are trying to do our best, we don't offend people. We smile and say, "Look, we're trying to save lives, create understanding, please, help us."

DR: Where did you get the idea for "Cabbages and Condoms"?

MV: We felt that if family planning was to succeed, then contraceptives have to be as easily found as vegetables in villages. So cabbage for vegetables and condoms for contraceptives.

DR: And everywhere in your restaurant, of course, there are condoms, including "Mr. Condom" here?

MV: Yes, we make clothes out of condoms. We have tablecloths and table settings and decorations, all sorts of things. We even have a pet bear, pet dog, or carpets made from condoms.

DR: And it seems that sort of education is very much at the heart of all you're doing here. Your education about safe sex.

MV: Condoms for all customers. Basically what we're doing is that we're providing information, usually is a cost. But we're doing it in such way that it becomes an income because we do it and people also spend money here each year, we make a profit. Because being poor, you have to learn how to make money and use the money for a social course.

DR: But fun is at the heart of it. Have you always had this sort of sense for mischief cause, there's a slight twinkle in your eye always when you talk about it.

MV: Well people like to have fun and they like to laugh. And when you laugh, it's much easier to convince people and they laugh with you, rather than being angry. And I think laughter's always nice and I've always liked it.

DR: Let's have a look at what's cooking here in the kitchen.

MV: We have so far in Japan one restaurant, soon to be two. And then we're going to go right around the world, so watch out, McDonald's.

DR: You're literally thinking in mass scale.

MV: Oh yes, maybe not in my lifetime. But definitely expand. And the more profit we can make for good charitable work, why not?

DR: And even the crockery is cabbages and condoms.

MV: Yes, yes, too. Maybe for their wedding gifts.

DR: So I mean, like, your mind is constantly, is always turning over new ways to make money.

MV: Yes, new way to make money. New ways to solve problems for poverty and sick people. New ways to do many things. When you don't have enough resources you think a lot more. But if you have too much, you worry about things.

DR: And people will wonder what drives you to have such energy. Why aren't you retired? Why don't you just say I've had enough?

MV: I'll never have enough because it's relaxing, it's fun, I like it. I'm addicted to it like a gambler. But I lose far less money than a gambler. I like what I do and luckily it serves a good source of purpose. And making lives a bit better for people, and if that's the case, I want to continue.

DR: Does anyone ever ask for a small one?

MV: No, and they're all very keen to have it.

DR: They're not shy, are they?

MV: No, no, no. I just said, better use it, because AIDS is on its way back.

DR: How many condoms would you give out on any one night like this?

MV: Sometimes 10,000 ... 20,000.

DR: Twenty-thousand condoms!

MV: Oh, yes.

DR: And potentially each one can save a life.

MV: Yes and it's a nice way of doing it. At least it stays on them.

DR: Where did your interest in AIDS campaigning, in health promotion, in sustainable development come about?

MV: It came from economic development. I was in the government when I first came back and my job was in evaluation, so I was sent up country to report on the development projects, be constructional of dams, new schools, universities and so on. And what I saw in the villagers was just kids, kids, kids everywhere. And I wondered whether what we were doing would be sufficient for them in the future. And this turned out to be an answer that was disastrous that we would never be able to do it because the growth rate was 3.3 percent and seven children per family. That had to be slowed down if we wanted to have a chance of improving the lives of people. And it took another six years before the government said, "All right, you can have your silly old family planning program."

But that turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic because there was no public education. And that's when I left the government to start sort of the insurgency movement in a sense, friendly insurgency movement of getting information out to people, contraceptives out to everyone in every village in Thailand, not using doctors for prescribing the pill. We work closely with the Ministry of Health and they said, "OK, we can have ordinary people trained to provide oral contraceptives to the people." So that's how we have it, the whole country, we've got everyone to be involved. It was a people's program. That's why it worked.

DR: Do you feel you could have achieved more in government? I mean you spent some time in government but as you say, you left it. Did you get disillusioned with government, do you feel you couldn't achieve what you wanted to?

MV: I left the government because I saw the only way to get family planning moving, was to do it outside the government. I was never disillusioned with government. I was very happy in there. I learnt an awful lot while there, but I felt this was a job for a swimmer, not a mountain climber.

DR: Some people have suggested that China's one-child policy, although incredibly difficult regarding human rights, has obviously had a massive effect, a positive effect on their population.

MV: Well, I've been very sympathetic toward the Chinese because I've never had a million, a billion population, and I wouldn't know what to do if I had a billion. That's what they've tried to do. Of course, in every society, in my own and others, there are some human rights infringement. But basically they've tried to do it for the good people, and they have admitted mistakes here and there, and it's worked for China.

DR: Part of the problem with global warming that sometimes isn't discussed as much as cutting carbon emissions and so on, is there are simply too many people on the planet.

MV: Well, who is causing global warming? Not the monkeys, not the squirrels -- it's the human beings, it's just such vast numbers of human beings. We're the ones causing global warming. In fact, what we ought to be saying is population growth is a major cause of it, so I hope to have a T-shirt out very, very soon: Stop global warming, use condoms.

DR: And that's something you see seriously you can equate the two, you think the way to tackle global warming is through birth control?

MV: Well, it's a little bit late, but definitely we've got to accept the fact that each birth we can prevent means a lot in human rights. It also means quite a bit in terms of global warming. Had we done this 15-20 years ago, it would have been great.

DR: You recently received $1 million from The Bill Gates Foundation. What did that mean to you?

MV: It meant that our work has been recognized by a very, very well known institution, very, very pleasing, and it means more doors are open to us to do things. Perhaps we will not be seen as maybe maverick as we were viewed before.

DR: And what motivates you? I mean a lot of people your age now would be retired, they'd say you've contributed so much. Why do you keep going? What motivates you to keep going?


MV: I enjoy what I do. That's number one. But also because each day if I do something and it makes a difference in the lives of people, that's even a greater motivation. I mean that's more than $1 million. What could I do with $1 million? What can I do with the satisfaction that I perhaps today helped somebody to have a better life. That's real reward. The million dollars, nothing.

DR: Well, thank you very much indeed for talking to us Mechai, Thailand's "Condom King." I'm sure condoms will be handed out wherever you go. For me, Dan Rivers, thanks for watching. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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