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Difference Maker

At her Thai border clinic, Cynthia Maung treats victims of war from her native Burma

By Tibor Krausz/ Correspondent / February 8, 2010

Dr. Cynthia Maung escaped from Burma two decades ago and now trains others at her clinic in Thailand to help refugees from the violence in her homeland.

Tibor Krausz


Mae Sot, Thailand

After two decades, the ramshackle scrap-wood hut here that Cynthia Maung turned into a temporary clinic for destitute refugees is still in use.

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She found shelter in the Thai border town of Mae Sot herself as a refugee in 1989, following the Burmese junta's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations the previous year. She'd fled through land-mine-infested jungles from the region of eastern Burma (Myanmar) where she'd worked as a village doctor among the indigent hill tribes.

Appalled by the misery of impoverished Burmese exiles in Thailand, Dr. Maung set up a free clinic for them. She scrounged medicine from foreign aid agencies and used a rice cooker to sterilize her instruments in boiling water.

She expected to go home within months.

Twenty years later, like hundreds of thousands of other Burmese migrants, Maung remains illegally in Thailand, living within sight of a homeland to which she can't return.

Yet she hasn't been idle. Her former clinic now houses volunteer medics and stands beside several concrete-block buildings with corrugated iron roofs in the self-contained leafy squatters' village that has grown up around it.

Her Mae Tao Clinic today boasts a trauma unit, a laboratory, and several patient wards, where emaciated men and women lie wrapped in their longyis, or Burmese sarongs, on simple wooden trestles covered with linoleum and bamboo mats. Relatives hold vigils by their sides, performing simpler nursing duties.

The conditions may not be ideal, yet Maung's clinic saves lives and limbs daily by providing treatment to those who couldn't get it anywhere else. "People come here with a lot of pain and suffering," she says. "Some of them arrive on their last legs in search of help."

"Dr. Cynthia," as the ethnic Karen physician is known here, is an unassuming woman who shuns jewelry and cosmetics, even the beige ground-bark paste that Burmese women smear on their cheeks. Dressed simply without a white coat or stethoscope, she mingles among patients with casual familiarity. A mother of four, she lives at the clinic with her family. She has adopted two of her children from its Bamboo Children's Home orphanage.

"In 20 years here, we still haven't been able to register the clinic" with the government, Maung notes. She adds wryly: "But at least we have regular electricity."

In Burma, even that wouldn't be a given. Ruled by an iron-fisted military regime, the country is among the world's poorest nations, ranked by the World Health Organization as next to last among all nations in the availability of healthcare.

In isolated rural areas, where the annual per capita income is $200, disease and malnutrition are endemic. Burma's infant mortality rate is the highest in Asia, and 1 in every 5 children that survive birth die within a few years.

At Maung's health center, tens of thousands of the neediest – acutely ill people, single mothers, children – receive treatment free of charge each year. Her staff consists largely of Burmese civilians trained as medics by volunteer physicians.