Doctor who went into self exile 23 years ago continues her struggle against the military junta
She is Burma‘s most famous doctor, yet Cynthia Maung – or Dr Cynthia, as she is known locally – has not lived there for 20 years. She can’t: she’s a political refugee who had to flee the military junta.
Like the 150,000 patients she treats every year, Maung is in self-exile in the Thai frontier town of Mae Sot on the Burmese border.
So it is down a muddy alley that Maung treats – for free – both those Burmese living in the many border refugee camps and those who risk death and arrest to illegally cross the border and get paracetamol, give birth or undergo cataract surgery.
There are no TVs, no food trolleys, no vials of anti-bacterial hand gel at Maung’s Mae Tao clinic. Instead, there are makeshift spittoons for the blood-orange betel nut Burmese men pack into their mouths, woodblock hospital beds with flower-embossed plastic laminate for sheets and stray dogs wandering among the concrete wards.
It’s a step-up from the rickety barn that once housed the clinic, which today treats everything from diabetes and post- traumatic stress disorder to cancer and epilepsy. But malaria and diarrhoea are the most common – yet easily preventable – complaints, Maung says.
“The Burmese government wants power, not health, [because] people who are sick or suffering they can control more,” she says, referring to the fact that Burma spends 3% of its gross domestic product on healthcare but 40% on its military.
The junta has historically branded Maung an insurgent and terrorist but, ironically, Burmese army personnel and government officials are among her patients.
Everyone here, it seems, is a victim of the regime and the decades-long civil war between government militias and various ethnic groups.
“There’s no hospital where I come from – it’s rebel territory five hours away in the jungle,” says an ethnic Karen paddy farmer as he awaits a clinic-made prosthetic leg after his own was blown off by a landmine. “Dr Cynthia is our only option.”
An ethnic Karen herself, Maung fled Burma by foot over 10 long nights in 1988, then aged 28. Armed with just a shoulder bag full of limited medical tools – among them a stethoscope, thermometer and two pairs of forceps – she expected to stay just three months on the border, where she and thousands of other political dissidents of the ’88 uprising could “continue the struggle”.
“Now it’s been 23 years,” she says with a shrug. The struggle is ongoing.
Maung used to sterilise her equipment in a rice cooker. Two decades on, her donor-funded clinic runs an annual budget of 100m baht (£2m) and is staffed by nearly 700 doctors, medics, nurses and volunteers.
Many of Maung’s former students have left Mae Tao to practice in Burma and “backpack medics” regularly cut through dense jungle to help the hundreds of thousands in Burma’s most inaccessible areas.
While the Burmese government has done its best to deter her, killing and arresting medics and burning down all but one of six field clinics, Maung has stretched funds to establish schools, orphanages and safe houses on the Thai border, even though her activities are illegal in Thailand.
Maung’s own statelessness – as well as the Thai government’s recent threat to close the border camps, potentially pitching hundreds of thousands of refugees back across the river – is a reminder that theirs is a desperate situation without a clear end in sight.
The area around Mae Sot is now home to as many as 150,000 ethnic Karen refugees scattered in camps that were first established in the 1980s. The Karen have been fleeing Burma for decades to escape civil strife and repression at the hands of the military junta. Some refugees were born and have spent all their lives in the camps.
But the 51-year-old doctor is ever hopeful. “No camp should ever be forever,” she says. “Luckily many civil society groups working [on the border] in education, healthcare and policy development are helping to build a real future for Burma.”