A Better Life for Everyone in Myanmar

Two Decades of Caring for Displaced Persons on the Thailand-Myanmar Border: An Interview with Dr. Cynthia Maung

Dr. Cynthia Maung is an ethnic Karen who was born and raised in Myanmar. In 1988, after the military seized power, she fled her home for Thailand because of her involvement in the pro-democracy student movement. After arriving there, she opened a clinic near the border to provide ethnic minorities from Myanmar with medical care they could not obtain back home. Today, more than two decades later, patients continue to pour into the clinic. But her perspective is not limited to health care alone: Dr. Maung believes that it is necessary to look at the wider picture to address issues in a more holistic and comprehensive way.


What Services Does the Mae Tao Clinic Provide?

The Mae Tao Clinic was established in 1989 by Dr. Cynthia Maung and a number of colleagues who fled the newly installed military government in Myanmar. The clinic was set up to provide medical services at a camp in Thailand for displaced persons.

At the time, many in Myanmar did not have access to medical care, and it was not uncommon for people to die of conditions that were treatable. Members of ethnic groups who did not speak Burmese were reluctant to seek treatment at hospitals in urban areas. And doctors were reluctant to practice in rural areas because it was difficult to make a living there.


Since its establishment 23 years ago, the Mae Tao Clinic has served ethnic group members from Myanmar living in Thailand and people crossing the border into Thailand to receive medical treatment that would be too expensive for them back home. The clinic treats around 150,000 patients a year free of charge, relying mainly on donations from overseas aid organizations.

In addition to providing medical services, the Mae Tao Clinic seeks to address the needs of the growing population of migrants and displaced persons by providing child protection services, ensuring access to education, organizing training programs for health-care workers, and supporting community-based health services in the state of Karen in Myanmar and elsewhere. About half the people living in the town of Mae Sot, where the clinic is located, are natives of Myanmar. The clinic now faces a dire fiscal crisis, however. It has not benefited from the Western aid that has poured into Myanmar since its transition to democracy because that assistance has targeted domestic programs.

Setting her sights on the day displaced persons can return home to Myanmar, Dr. Maung has been calling on the Myanmar government to enact legislation that would grant citizenship to the children of citizens born outside the country, allow overseas medical organizations to operate in the country, and enter into a dialogue with ethnic minority groups.

The Need for Health-Care Services in Myanmar

In November 2012, Dr. Maung visited Japan and spoke about the Mae Tao Clinic to Japanese supporters in Tokyo, Fukui, and Osaka. In our interview with her below, she touches on how democratization has impacted conditions for natives of Myanmar living near the border and also discusses issues that need to be addressed in the future.

INTERVIEWER What kind of services does the Mae Tao Clinic provide?

DR. MAUNG We make medical, educational, and legal consultation services available to stateless people living near the Thailand-Myanmar border. Our patients face a diverse and complex array of circumstances. Most require assistance in a range of different areas, including food, employment, education, protection from abuse or violence, and access to health care if they are sick. Health is not a matter of medical care alone; we need a more holistic approach to issues, with the safeguarding of human rights as the centerpiece.

The Mae Tao Clinic organizes programs in the community that meet the needs of the more vulnerable. Displaced persons are not counted in the national statistics of Thailand and Myanmar. Malaria, for instance is much more common among displaced persons, and the rate of infection is actually much higher than the statistics indicate. For this reason, our clinic trains health-care workers so they can return to their native village and provide medical services there. We need to get as many people as possible to intervene in their communities. We have also been calling on the Myanmar government to take into account the situation of migrants and displaced persons, and other border issues, in its health strategy. Instead of makeshift measures, we need trained workers who will be able to contribute to their communities back home and a pool of people who can take action. I want people to use what they have learned here back home in Myanmar.

INTERVIEWER What are some of the things you would like the Japanese people to know about the situation your clinic faces?


DR. MAUNG Knowledge of numbers and statistics is important, but I think a deeper understanding can be gained if I directly meet Japanese people, tell them about what is happening around the Thailand-Myanmar border, and find out what they think about the situation. While many projects funded by aid from foreign governments emphasize economic development, our priority is to enhance human rights.

As a country prone to natural disasters, Japan has been focused on disaster prevention and safe evacuation in the event of an emergency. Myanmar, by contrast, has been the scene of civil war and conflicts for more than 60 years. Though it should be far easier to stem war and conflict than prepare for a natural disaster, this has not been the case. The people of Myanmar must receive a proper education so they can be equipped to formulate the policies needed. Financial and technical support from Japan toward this end is also extremely important.

INTERVIEWER How is assistance from the Nippon Foundation used?

DR. MAUNG Along with our grant from Britain’s Department for International Development, which allows us to procure medication, the Nippon Foundation has provided us with a grant [$95,000 in 2012] that we use to transport patients requiring advanced medical treatment to national hospitals in Thailand, provide nutritional supplements and meals to patients, and cover staff salaries and other administrative costs. Of the 200 beds in the clinic, the medical department has 80 beds for adults, 40 beds for children as well as a staff of 80 people. The clinic also has a department for reproductive health that oversees pregnancies and deliveries, and a department of surgery. A huge number of people cross the border to visit the clinic for treatment or childbirth. The most commonly treated conditions are malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition, and infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. We hope that a system for health checkups and medical care will be put in place in Myanmar as soon as possible.

INTERVIEWER What are some of the things you would like to achieve in the future?

Photo of Dr. Cynthia Maung

DR. MAUNG Myanmar’s educational system today is not doing enough to improve relations between various ethnic groups and build peace. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity only leads children to fear cultures other than their own. Schools can teach us to respect cultural differences, ethnic groups, and languages other than our own. We must figure out how to maintain diversity while coming together as a nation. What do we need to do to ensure Myanmar remains a peaceful nation and builds friendly relations with China, India, Bangladesh, and other countries it borders? We must formulate a strategy for improving the education system, rather than focusing solely on economic development.

We need to create a society that ensures the safety of our children—the next generation—and allows them to lead more meaningful lives by improving the current situation. We must also do what is necessary to ensure young people give something back to society. Though it may take time, children need to be given opportunities. It is my hope that Myanmar will one day serve as host for the Asian Youth Forum, and that young people will become involved in peace-building in their communities.

Photographs taken in Thailand courtesy of the Japan Association for the Mae Tao Clinic