Home Special Reports Life on the Border: Exile Burmese in Thailand Exiled Medics Celebrate Two Decades of Serving Burmese in Need

Exiled Medics Celebrate Two Decades of Serving Burmese in Need

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To the Burmese military rulers she is an insurgent and a deserter.

To her patients Dr Cynthia Maung is a hero. She is the founder of a clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot that is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

In 1989, equipped with medicines and instruments she sterilized in a rice cooker, Dr Maung transformed a barn into a clinic to provide free treatment for the sick and wounded fleeing Burma’s oppressive regime.

Now more than 300 patients pass through this clinic every day.

For those who cannot get across the border they have a created a team of ‘back-pack medics’ who go into the jungle to reach those in need.

Rebecca Henschke speaks with these legendary health-workers.


Medicines are unpacked from cardboard boxes.

These basic drugs are being put into trekking-style backpacks.

With her backpack loaded, Wai Wai, one of the health workers, will leave her two children and trek into Burmese jungle along the Thai border.

“When we reach the area we can see many people have diseases and are in desperate need of health care services, they mainly suffer from malaria and diarrhoea; the children suffer from malnutrition and there are many pregnant women who need maternity care.”

It’s a dangerous job.

The Burmese military, or SPDC, doesn’t recognize the medics and the areas where she goes are often active conflict zones, riddled with landmines.

“So if the SPDC soldiers see me they can arrest me, kill me or put me in jail - that’s why our life is endangered. Some medics have been killed by the military; others have had gun shot wounds.”

In fact, seven have already died.

The backpack team has its origins in 1988, when a crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations forced thousands of people to flee the country for Thailand. Among them was Dr Cynthia Maung, the head of the medical clinic in Mae Sot.

Aung Pe shows me around the compound of wooden buildings surrounded by a dirt courtyard.

“Monday, Wednesday and Saturday 400 patients come through our doors. Today is a busy day because we are immunizing children.”

We arrive at a room filled with mothers and babies lying on steel beds. Some are on mattresses on the floor.

“This is our delivery room, where women give birth and we deal with gynaecological problems. Do you want to have a look?”

We walk up to meet one of the mothers lying with a tiny new born baby. The baby is connected to a drip.

This is her fifth child, she laughs. She traveled cross the border because she couldn’t afford to give birth in Burma. You have to pay for everything there – needles for injections, towels - but here they are free, she says.

Our next stop is a workshop where prosthetic limbs are made.

“These are for the landmine victims, some are from gunshots, and some people have had accidents as migrant workers in Thailand in the border area.”

The hanging plastic legs in this room are a reminder of the long conflict between the Government and the rebel Karen soldiers who are fighting for independence.

Standing outside smoking is Nyunt Win who has just had his leg amputated.

He was forced to work as a porter with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army- a group that now fights on the government side.

While trekking with the soldiers in the jungle along the border he stepped on a landmine.

He is hoping to get a prosthetic limb from the clinic so he can work to support his four children.

“He will have to wait three to six months because the wound is still very raw. You have to wait. So after six months we can try.”

Burma’s healthcare system is teetering on the brink of collapse. Now one year after the failed monks uprising against the military, more and more ordinary people are looking to organisations like Dr Cynthia’s.

“The military has not changed. Oppression in continuing and the decline of human rights is getting worse and worse. Because we live on the border we are able to learn much more about the true situation in Burma and to advocate for change.

Q. So do you see what you are doing here as being part of the movement to create democracy in Burma or is your focus primarily on providing health care to those in need?

“The emergency medical service alone is not enough to respond to the needs. Demand is higher and higher. The individual suffering is huge but at the same time if you look at the whole nation the suffering and the oppression is getting worse.”

Q. So you are playing a part in fighting against that oppression with this health clinic?

“Yes, everyday we see individual cases that show suffering not only from illnesses but from this oppression. The decline of basic health care is oppression.”

Q. The Burmese Military government has labeled you as an insurgent and a deserter. How do you feel when they call you that?

“This is the way they deal with all the opposition groups. It’s just a different form of discrimination and oppression with the goal of isolating us from each other.”

Q. What do you think the solution is then for Burma. Can you see change happening through a people’s uprising- the 1988 uprising that you took part in failed, last Septembers people’s revolution failed…Do you have to change your strategy?

“Support and protection for the people of Burma for the last twenty years, particularly the young people, is little. We feel the international community and the United Nation could do much more to protect human rights defenders.”

Q. So you think the UN has failed Burma?

“We feel that in terms of protecting people against human rights violations there is not much going on.”

Q. So it’s up to the international community now to do more?

“Yes, the Burmese people have remained very strong but the oppression and the violence they face is so strong so they need protection. The international community should monitor the situation and be much more outspoken about the situation in Burma.”

Dr Cynthia Maung, the founder of the famous medical clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot that provides medical care to more than 300 patients a day, for free.


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 21 July 2009 14:09 )  

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