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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » 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 the strength of the military is they are – I don’t know, there’s no strength. This is a weakness for our nation. Because of they afraid of they’re losing the power. They strengthen their military forces and then strengthening their military relationship with neighboring countries; or like we get more weapons and bring in more people to join to the military. So because of this way, people are forced, like, especially children are forced to be recruited as soldiers. So this make very difficult for the country because children continue to drop out of school. No way of survival any other way.

So maybe they come to Thailand to escape working as child labor or working as military, and then gradually the young people are used as the weapons to control their power. So the whole generation or the whole country are become into cycles of violence. So for us, we don’t want the young people to put in the cycle of violence and vulnerability and poverty. That’s why our effort is we want to try to give more. As much as possible, we want to provide education, try to improve access to education for young people. And then even education curriculum and education system will be the key to change the country. Because the way in the country, getting education is very, like, it’s just people can read and write. Finished, they have to start joining to their work.

So it is not enough for improving the whole family or the whole community. So now the movement here tries to improve access to education and information to the people. Because, under the military dictatorship, the media has been censored and then the education [is] being blocked. And children are also isolated and traumatized because of becom[ing] orphans. So for us, we feel that psychosocial programs or education programs are very important. So currently the military government in Burma, they never respect the dignity of the human being. So people don’t like [them], general public. They have been suffering a lot and they have been under oppression.

So, in this case, people really want change. Whoever [is] living on the border or in the country want to have democratic government. And then people don’t want to feel oppressed and vulnerable; and people don’t want to be powerless. So in this case, the foreign governments who support the military regime need to be aware that how the community feels about the system or what is the real suffering. So respecting the human dignity and human rights. This makes more harm to our country because we have a lot of natural resources. I think we don’t need much foreign aids in terms of financially. And the thing is how to manage our resources, both human resource and natural resources.

So how to respect the local community and how to make people powerful, empowered, so that the country will sustain, and sustainable development will be achieved. So the government right now in our country [is] not accountable and transparent to the nation. So for us, I think for Burmese people mostly are very patient, waiting and trying to solve the problem in their way in the community, and try to strengthen the network and community that, as you may be aware, is always oppressed. And people are in prison and, as you know, that the political prisoner is very shameful for us because many good people, many talented people, are put in the jail. And all the young people who are very alert, or very active roles, but they could not get good education. And to develop this country, the role of the woman and mother need to be respect and need to provide more participation. But the government never respect.

And for us, people trying to do, like, woman participation and the stronger youth and then more civil society group development. But this always oppress. So you may see many, many times, over the past 20, 22 years. So even though there are many cases they’ve reported that, especially on the border, it’s gross human rights violation ongoing. So to improve the situation in the country is not only for people in Burma; it’s become threat to our neighboring countries, like stability, because many people just finally decide to leave from the country. 

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 on this theme from Cynthia Maung

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 to Democracy How she fled military repression in Burma in 1988 and established a clinic on the Thai-Burma border.

Other videos 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. More +