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Interviews : Cynthia Maung

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Interviewed August 2010 

Cynthia Maung is a refugee from Burma who established a world-renowned clinic near the Thai-Burma border for her fellow refugees, as well as for internally displaced persons within Burma.

Dr. Cynthia, as she is known, was born into an ethnic Karen family in Rangoon in 1959. After finishing medical school, she moved to a village in Karen State where she served as a doctor for poor people of several ethnic groups. When the military seized power in 1988 and began cracking down on pro-democracy activists, she was among thousands who fled to the jungle. Like many of the others, she eventually made it across the Thai-Burma border.

At first, Dr. Cynthia worked at a small hospital in Thailand treating those who were fleeing the fighting inside Burma. In 1989, after consulting with residents of refugee camps along the border about the medical needs of refugees and internally displaced persons , she established her clinic in a dilapidated building with bare dirt floors on the outskirts of Mae Sot. Her makeshift clinic had few supplies and almost no money, but she improvised by sterilizing her few instruments in a rice cooker and soliciting medicine and food from Catholic relief workers. Today, Dr. Cynthia’s clinic treats more than 75,000 patients each year. 

I think for me, first, you care about your community or your generation. So through that way you will choose the issue or topics, what you want to focus on. So starting from this point you can start network with other groups who are like concentrated on health or environment or maybe education for children. So through this network the people come together and [are] trying to strengthen the policy and the standard of care and strengthen the system. So we feel more and more stronger and in power. And, again, you also have to advocate on different level, like in your community leaders, or village leaders, or you also have to advocate to your neighbors, like neighboring countries, or your politicians.

So by strengthening the network and make more understanding about the context so your relationship will be stronger. So through the stronger relationship, people will start [to] engage in your cause. And, again, you also need to advocate to the developing countries or the donor countries or NGOs what you really want. Because sometime the NGOs or government, they will bring some issue, but it will not be appropriate or not relevant for your cause.

So you have to raise your strong voice that what you really want to help, like to start the program or start the services for this community; or to improve the situation, how to improve access, or how relevant your program to your community as well as how do you want to sustain your program, and how do we want more accountable and transparent with each other. So we have to have a strong partnership program, whoever you were with. So you have to treat each other [with] respect and as equal. 

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

More from Cynthia Maung

Cynthia Maung: Advice for Action Dr. Cynthia Maung’s message for human rights defenders around the world: begin with mutual respect, build relationships, advocate strongly for what you know is right. Cynthia Maung: Adapting Technology How health workers who cross the border into Burma try to adapt modern medical techniques to difficult conditions including poor sanitation, an inadequate water supply, and no electricity. Cynthia Maung: Challenging Documentation The difficulties of operating a clinic whose patients are faced with the constant threat of arrest and deportation to Burma. More + Cynthia Maung: Human Dignity How the Burmese military regime’s singleminded determination to stay in power has exacerbated poverty, illiteracy, and other social problems -- and has become a threat to stability in neighboring countries. Cynthia Maung: Documenting Human Rights Violations How “backpack health worker teams” have documented torture and other human rights violations in Burma. Cynthia Maung: Health Care and Human Rights How advocacy efforts have enhanced her clinic’s ability to help refugee children. Cynthia Maung: Variety of International Aid How her clinic has received help from churches, governments, NGOs, and private citizens from around the world. Cynthia Maung: Mae Sot Clinic How her Mae Sot clinic, which started in a makeshift hut in 1989, has been able to serve many thousands of people from both sides of the Thai-Burma border. Cynthia Maung: Health Care to Democracy How she fled military repression in Burma in 1988 and established a clinic on the Thai-Burma border.