HIGHLIGHTS

  • Cynthia Maung studied medicine at the University of Rangoon. She was practicing in a Karen village near her hometown when, in 1988, Burma’s military junta launched its bloody crackdown against democracy advocates.
  • Her makeshift clinic had hardly any supplies at all. She improvised by sterilizing a few precious instruments in a kitchen rice cooker and by soliciting medicines and food from Catholic relief workers and nearby refugee camps.
  • Dr. Cynthia expanded her clinic to meet the need. She attracted volunteer doctors, nurses, and medical interns from abroad and tirelessly solicited help from relief agencies and NGOs.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her humane and fearless response to the urgent medical needs of thousands of refugees and displaced persons along the Thailand-Burma border.”

 CITATION

Like many Thai towns along the Thailand-Burma border these days, Mae Sot is a sanctuary for Burmese refugees in flight from upheaval and civil war at home. There, tens of thousands of Karens and other Burmese minorities subsist on the rough fringes of the Thai economy and await a brighter future. Their thoughts are often of their villages across the border where, for years now, the Burmese Army has waged a violent campaign to bring the region’s people into the firm embrace of the Burmese military state. This brutal war goes on and on. In Mae Sot, Cynthia Maung, a doctor, has been treating its victims for fourteen years.

Born to a Karen family in Moulmein in 1959, Cynthia Maung studied medicine at the University of Rangoon. She was practicing in a Karen village near her hometown when, in 1988, Burma’s military junta launched its bloody crackdown against democracy advocates. Packing a few clothes and a medical reference book, she fled with some students to Mae Sot, Thailand, where she joined other exiles. Trauma and illness were rampant among the refugees. In a dilapidated building with bare dirt floors, Dr. Cynthia went to work.

Her makeshift clinic had hardly any supplies at all. She improvised by sterilizing a few precious instruments in a kitchen rice cooker and by soliciting medicines and food from Catholic relief workers and nearby refugee camps. As she and her companions lived from hand to mouth and shared in all the work, Dr. Cynthia treated the local scourges of malaria, respiratory disease, and diarrhea as well as shrapnel and gunshot wounds and injuries from land mines. To keep up, she trained health workers to assist in the clinic and to serve as “backpack medics” across the border. By 1996, she was supporting six thatch-and-tin clinics in the Karen-controlled war zone. Here her medics treated common illnesses, set broken bones, and performed simple frontline surgery. They also trained midwives, installed sanitary toilets, and brought lessons of hygiene, nutrition, and reproductive health to villagers-all this until the villages were overrun by the Burmese Army, uprooting thousands and raising the flood of refugees to Thailand.

Dr. Cynthia expanded her clinic to meet the need. She attracted volunteer doctors, nurses, and medical interns from abroad and tirelessly solicited help from relief agencies and NGOs. They responded and, year by year, the clinic grew.

Today, staffed by five doctors and dozens of health workers and trainees, Dr. Cynthia’s clinic provides free comprehensive health services to thirty thousand people a year. Last year, 563 babies were born there and 700 patients received new eyeglasses. The clinic operates its own laboratory and prosthetics workshop and receives support from some international organizations. Meanwhile, sixty teams of Dr. Cynthia’s backpack medics continue to assist displaced villagers across the border and to support two field clinics in the war zone.

Life along the border is hard in many ways. At Dr. Cynthia’s clinic, injuries from domestic violence are equal to injuries from war. This is why, aside from treating patients, she fosters women’s organizations, youth programs, and other efforts to redress the corrosive social consequences of refugee life.

Dr. Cynthia lives above her clinic in Mae Sot with her husband and two children. She dreams of going home to Burma. The World Health Organization has said that Burma’s health care system is one of the worst in the world. Dr. Cynthia would like to change that. In Mae Sot, she says, “We have already started.”

In electing Cynthia Maung to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her humane and fearless response to the urgent medical needs of thousands of refugees and displaced persons along the Thailand-Burma border.

 RESPONSE

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am greatly honored to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

I accept this award on behalf of the many health and community workers from Burma who have committed themselves to serve our nation and without whom I could not carry out my activities.

My colleagues and I face many challenges working to assist displaced communities resulting from the conflict and presence of military dictatorship in our country. Until the late 1950’s, Burma was known as the rice bowl of Asia, a beautiful country rich in natural resources with a highly literate population.

But fifty years of civil war have left Burmese civil society divided and disrupted. The military dictatorship in Burma has displaced hundreds of thousands, or forced them to flee to neighbouring countries where they cannot live as full members of society. Since 1988, all university education has been interrupted and there are more closing days than opening days.

Today, the country is in a severe economic crisis with one of the poorest health and human rights violation records in the world. Even though the country’s opposition leader, Daw Aung Sann Su Kyi has been released from house arrest there has been no political change and no attempt has been made by the regime to deal constructively with ethnic conflicts.

More than 1,500 people still remain as political prisoners in the country. Under military oppression, access to information from the outside world is very limited. Within the country all information sharing and the media are controlled by the military regime. Burma has been isolated from her neighbours and from the international community.

The oppressive situation continues for the people of Burma – the forced relocations, forced labour, systematic rape, extortion and military offensives are go on and on, and therefore people’s basic need for survival increases.

Thousands of children are born everyday and cannot officially be registered. Children continue to drop out of school and are often separated from their families. Trafficking and prostitution is a growing problem among people of all ages and both sexes who are helpless to defend themselves.

Along Burma’s borders, health, youth and women’s organizations have exited, grown and supported each other for many years to address the needs of these people. Education, training and networking are our priorities. In exile, we continue to work together to promote the welfare of the people and to assist them in building the skills that will develop trust and confidence among the different communities. This will lead to creating a better understanding and establishing an agenda for a new society for Burma as a whole in the future.

However, even with all this community support and education the underlying problem can only be solved through political reform, reconciliation, the return of freedom of expression and the establishment of healthcare and education for all.

We strongly urge all countries, not just our neighbours, to support us in our struggle to free Burma from the military dictatorship.

This award recognizes the dignity and courage of all the people who are working toward peace and democracy in Burma.

We hope that one day Burma will again be a free country. Thank you for your support.

 BIOGRAPHY

When she slipped over the border from her native Burma into Thailand in 1988, Dr. Cynthia Maung never dreamed that Thailand would become her home. She was very young at the time, a new doctor, and part of a loose group of students engaged in political protest against the oppressive Burmese regime of General Ne Win. Maung hoped to return to Burma in two or three months. She did not realize that she and her companions were facing a protracted struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma, one that continues today. Nor did she dream that nine years later she would be running a full-scale medical clinic in Thailand, serving thirty thousand to forty thousand refugees from Burma every year as well as large numbers of partisans and victims of war still living across the border.

Burma, as Dr. Cynthia often tells her visitors, used to be considered the Rice Basket of Asia. It was a beautiful country with a literate and prosperous population. Under British rule, the Burmese took to English-language education and looked forward to independence as a democracy. The country’s hill peoples and ethnic minorities—Karens, Karennis, Shans, and Mons, among others—did not share equally in modernization under the British but were incorporated into the colonial state and future national body. The British were especially interested in hill peoples who readily took to Christianity, such as the Karens, Maung’s own ethnic group. At the advent of political independence in 1947, Aung San, a Burmese nationalist hero (and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) was elected to lead free Burma. He hoped to integrate the country’s many hill peoples into the nation-to-be, but he was assassinated on the eve of independence. In a sense, Burma never recovered from his death.

The postindependence government of the Union of Burma was led by U Nu, Aung San’s deputy, and by Aung San’s political organization, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. The Union of Burma was a federal state, composed of a large Burmese area and four upland states that were home to the ethnic minorities; the latter were promised a great deal of autonomy. In practice, however, power quickly concentrated in the central government. This, plus economic decline and the Union government’s stress on “Burmeseness,” all contributed to a spate of insurrections staged by the Burmese Communist Party and various hill peoples, notably the Karens. The bright hopes of the Burmese and their ethnic groups for a better life under independence quickly faded.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)