Difference Maker

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

By , / Correspondent

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

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.

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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.

One volunteer is Dr. Terrence Smith of Sacramento, Calif., who spends several months each year at the clinic's maternity unit, which helps up to a dozen poor women a day give birth safely. "Dr. Cynthia serves as an example for encouraging a spirit of self-reliance among the neediest," he says.

A Burmese villager has, in fact, just amputated a leg. "I can do all kinds of operations, no problem," stresses Eh Ta Mwee, a diminutive Karen medic, who has assisted in myriad operations performed by qualified surgeons. If need be, he now can perform surgeries on his own.

The leg that was amputated below the knee was that of another Burmese villager, Htay Gay, who contracted severe gangrene after being shot in the ankle by a Burmese government soldier in Burma's insurgency-troubled Karen State. He reached the clinic after 10 days hobbling through jungle and hills with a bamboo crutch.

"Without Dr. Cynthia, I'd be dead," he says laconically. In a few months, he'll be equipped with a prosthetic leg made in the clinic's workshop.

Like him, many patients come from inside Burma after grueling journeys on foot or borne by relatives on improvised stretchers. Suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, or from untreated injuries and wounds, many sick and destitute people slip across Burma's porous border with Thailand to seek treatment at the Mae Tao Clinic.

"We won't turn anyone away or leave them to suffer alone," Maung says.

Still, many people in rural hinterlands can't come to Mae Sot, so Dr. Maung's clinic goes to them.

In groups of three to five, some 300 ethnic Karen, Mon, and Shan medics trained by Maung's staff fan out across mountainous hill-tribe terrain to remote villages deep inside Burma. Dodging land mines and ambushes by government troops during these arduous hikes into the war zones of a fierce, decades-old separatist insurgency, members of the clinic's Backpack Health Worker Team lug bulky supplies of medicine in rucksacks and wicker baskets fastened with straps slung across their foreheads.

Several have died or been maimed en route. "We work in a conflict area with free-fire zones," says Mahn Mahn, a Karen who oversees the teams' work. "We're Dr. Cynthia's medical marines."

In bamboo-and-thatch hamlets lashed by torrential monsoon rains, the backpack medics treat diseases, attend to injuries, and teach villagers about hygiene and nutrition. They distribute birth delivery kits to expectant mothers and dietary supplements to children.

"Dr. Cynthia is a mother figure who gives," notes Tha Tha, a Karen man. "She's built everything from scratch. She has nothing herself, but gives to others who need it more."

Her compassion hasn't endeared the doctor to the Burmese junta, which has declared her a traitor. Maung receives anonymous death threats and is shadowed at crowded gatherings by unarmed volunteer bodyguards.

But Dr. Cynthia is carrying on, undaunted.

"Many sick people in Burma have nowhere to go," she says. "But we're here for them."

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