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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. 

When I left from Burma, we had to hide in the jungle on the way because we [were] afraid that the military would know that we would be on the way and come to the border. And so, many people just hiding and coming slowly to the border. So it takes seven days because there is no vehicle or transport system. Just nighttime we travel and daytime we are hiding. But we realized that the situation in the ethnic area is worse than inside Burma because there are no healthcare services. So when they learn about I’m a doctor, so they come and approach our team. So whatever we have we start treating patient.

And then seven days later we arrived to the border. At that time, almost 10,000 people from inside Burma come out from Burma and then start setting up, like, a temporary shelter and camp along the border area. But there has been no system in place for healthcare and food relief, and people desperately need for the relief, what we started to do, relief work. So since that time, with support from local Thai community leaders and the Karen leaders, we start setting up relief and humanitarian assistance for these people, including a food program and also, like, medical services. But at that time, we only have very few health workers come out from Burma: some medical doctors, medical student. So there is a lot of demand, because people are sick with malaria and malnutrition and people have many skin infections because of the poor shelter, suffering from pneumonia. So we have been quite busy with all the medical work, and then we start to do training for community health volunteer. So almost three months we’ve been busy with all the relief work and not stable.

But three months later it’s become a little bit stable. But the same time, we start to realize that not only the new arrival; there are many villages around and many people who displace into Thailand. They need healthcare services. So since that time, we decided to start a medical services. And not only the relief program, to start set up medical center, or health center, for these displaced population.

So initially our clients, our patients, are people who fled to the border during 1988. And two years later, our service expanded to Karen State and to the community around Mae Sot area. They learned about the health services available at the clinic. So at that time we only have medical program, just basic medical services. Gradually we identify that there are many unaccompanied woman, children who we need to provide service for maternal-child health.

And also Mae Sot Hospital and the local public health, they learn about our services even [though] we are not registered. We could not be registered or we were not under the public health system. They realize the benefit of the services we provide. So today our medical services provide about 100,000 cases a year. And we provide antenatal care and delivery service for about 4,000 women. And we also treat malaria every year. We have 6,000 to 8,000 malaria cases treated at the clinic. And at the same time we train more and more health workers.

Usually people living in remote village or IDP, internal displaced community, they never receive health care services or education from the government. So the international NGOs are also not allowed to access this population. So this population, also they become our partner because they also want to set up their health care service in their own village. So we start helping them to train and to be health workers and then, after training, they go back and work inside Burma.

So today we have more than 80 teams and access to 152,000 to 180,000 population in internally displaced community. And some area there is a little bit more stable because no active fighting around that area, like ceasefire zone. Or some community is much more stable community. So in this area, we [are] able to support that ethnic health organization, to upgrade their existing facility, like laboratory or obstetric emergency service. So through cross border healthcare service or cross border collaboration we [are] able to access altogether about 400,000 to 500,000 population in Karen, Mon, Karenni, Shan, Chin ethnic groups. 

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: 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: 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: Health Care and Human Rights How advocacy efforts have enhanced her clinic’s ability to help refugee children. More + Cynthia Maung: Health Care to Democracy How she fled military repression in Burma in 1988 and established a clinic on the Thai-Burma border. Cynthia Maung: Challenging Documentation The difficulties of operating a clinic whose patients are faced with the constant threat of arrest and deportation to Burma. 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: 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: 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: Documenting Human Rights Violations How “backpack health worker teams” have documented torture and other human rights violations in Burma.