Cynthia Maung – Burma

She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Linked with our presentation of The Mae Tao Clinic.

She says: “I dream of going back home to Burma one day. But until then, we need to give hope.”

Cynthia Maung – Burma

She works for the Mae Tao Clinic.

Cynthia Maung (born 1959), a trained doctor from Karen State in Burma, fled to Thailand in 1988 and set up the Mae Tao Clinic. Every year the clinic saves the lives of thousands of refugees and migrant workers. It supports remote field clinics in Burma serving internally displaced persons and sponsors women’s organizations and health education. It trains medics to provide health care throughout the Thai-Burma border. Dr. Maung has set up an orphanage, and supports schools and boarding houses.

The Mae Tao clinic receives financial support from NGOs and grants from foreign governments.
Cynthia Maung was a 29-year old village doctor when she was forced to flee the violent crackdown by Burma’s dictatorship. Under General Ne Win’s military junta, Burma had become one of the world’s poorest and most oppressed countries. In 1988, the tension boiled over: Tens of thousands took to the streets, calling for democracy. Soldiers fired into the crowds, killing thousands of protesters. The brutal repression seeped into every village. People were tortured or gunned down. Buses stopped running, village leaders vanished. “Everything felt very dangerous,” Cynthia recalls. Many medics were on the regime’s blacklist, and Cynthia was especially at risk because of her Karen origins – the Karen are Burma’s largest ethnic minority group and were brutally persecuted by the government.

On the night of September 21, 1988, Cynthia decided to flee with a group of students. They trudged silently through the jungle at night and slept in muddy rice fields by day, reaching the Thai border a week later.”I didn’t have much of an idea of what was happening,” she recalls. “I just came here accidentally.”When she arrived in Mae Sot, Cynthia was shocked by the overwhelming numbers of pro-democracy students, who were pouring into makeshift refugee camps and by the lack of facilities to deal with their most urgent needs. Many were traumatised, sick or wounded by the Burmese military. At least 400 died from malaria within the first year.

“There was a desperate need for emergency healthcare and humanitarian assistance. We simply had to do something,” she says. With the help of foreign relief workers and Karen leaders, Dr Cynthia started a makeshift clinic in Huay Kaloke refugee camp. Her only tools were her medical textbook and a rice cooker for sterilizing instruments. She and her team began dealing with hundreds of refugees, working day and night to heal war wounds and treat chronic conditions such as malaria and dysentery. “At the start, we all thought the clinic would be temporary. I thought I would be able to go home after three months. But every day, more sick and wounded people arrived and there was so much to do,” she says.

Over the last 16 years, Cynthia has developed the Mae Tao Clinic into a multi-speciality medical center that logs more than 58,000 patient visits a year, serving a target population of 150,000 of all religions and ethnicities. It has saved the lives of thousands of refugees, illegal migrant workers and orphans. It currently has a workforce of five physicians and over 200 healthcare workers and trainees, who provide health services, including trauma care, antenatal care, treatment for malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and HIV. Mae Tao is also a shelter for abused and traumatized women, to whom it offers counseling. “It’s not just the physical pain we want to cure,” she explains. “We need to help alleviate the deep psychological trauma that war creates and we need to offer protection.”

A volunteer at Mae Tao described the daily scene: “In the slow heat of the morning, I kept waiting for the arrival of bloody soldiers, but kept seeing more and more women: Pregnant women, women shivering with malaria, women coughing from tuberculosis, women bent over with diarrhea. There were factory girls with ugly rashes on their legs and gashes on their hands, Emaciated ladies with glazed yellow eyes.”

In addition to providing medical care, Dr Cynthia and her clinic work to heal and build communities. “You can’t improve the health of the people without improving their community,” she explains. “If the people aren’t educated, they won’t have jobs. If they are depressed, they won’t be able to care for themselves or their children.” The clinic has support groups for HIV-positive mothers and their babies. It provides reproductive-health education, child immunizations and a screened blood-donor program. There is an on-site prosthetics unit that fabricates artificial legs, rehabilitates amputees and retrains them as tailors.The Mae Tao clinic supports numerous schools and boarding houses for the families of migrant workers.

Dr Cynthia has also set up a children’s home at Umphium Mae refugee camp, which cares for children separated from their parents; some are orphaned or abandoned, while others are sent by their parents for schooling not available inside Burma.”Young people are our best resource, our hope, our future leaders. We need to look after them, educate them and give them skills for the future, so that they can continue the struggle.”

The clinic hosts interns from local ethnic groups and each year trains a new class of nurses and doctors to provide healthcare throughout the Thai-Burma border region. Its staff also receive training from foreign physician volunteers and from rotations with local hospitals. Dr Cynthia runs field clinics at Pa Hite and Mae La Poh Hta for ethnic minorities and internally displaced persons within Burma, who have no access to medical care. She sends teams of medics into the jungle, laden with backpacks and baskets of medicine flung across their foreheads. They teach traditional midwives sterile birthing techniques.

Dr Cynthia’s day begins at 4am and ends late at night. But she shrugs this off and says simply: “I love what I do. Every day brings fresh challenges. We are always facing some crisis, such as a shortage of accommodation or food, or breakdowns in the water and electricity supplies.”And the numbers of patients keep rising. Before it was individuals or small groups, but now there are more and more families fleeing the repression inside Burma. This is an indicator of just how much worse the situation is getting.”

Cynthia lives at the Mae Sot clinic in a small room she shares with her husband, Kyaw Hein, and her two children, Peace and Crystal, and Jasmin, an abandoned baby girl she adopted.

Cynthia has received many international awards in recognition of her tireless work for her people, despite frequent death threats and her vulnerability as an illegal refugee in Thailand. These include the Jonathan Mann Health and Human Rights Award, the Foundation for Human Rights in Asia Award and the Van Heuven Goedhart Award from the Netherlands. In 2002, Dr Cynthia also received the prestigious Magsaysay award for community leadership.

Among foreign doctors and relief workers, she has a larger-than-life reputation as a doctor, diplomat, and administrator, saint. “She is known not by what she says but by what she does,” says Dr John MacArthur, a primary healthcare supervisor for the International Rescue Committee, who has worked on the border since 1991. “You never hear her boasting or trying to take credit for her work. She’s doing this for the people, for the community. A lot of people in this movement do things for reputation. I can honestly say, since I first met Dr Cynthia, I’ve never heard anybody speak poorly of her.”

Dr Cynthia hopes to be able to return to her homeland one day. “I dream of going home once the regime changes. But until then we have to work to empower our communities. We have to give hope.” The Mae Sot clinic is supported by international non-governmental organizations and by foreign aid from the US, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Thailand, Slovenia and Britain. (See on 1000peacewomen).

read also these articles:

seattle times;


Burma border projects;

World Press Review;

David Kilgour;

Online women in politics;


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