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Doctor makes a difference amid chao

Subject: Doctor makes a difference amid chaos 

Doctor makes a difference amid chaos 
S.F. Gate/ San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle) 
Karen Emmons


Cynthia Maung heals Burmese refugees at camp on Thai border

MAE LA PO HTA, Burma - There is no certainty here, no security. 

This makeshift village of ethnic Burmese was thrown together from the shared
destruction of their homes at the behest of the military government.
Soldiers could attack at any time, killing residents or pushing them over
the border into Thailand. 

And yet, Cynthia Maung is determined to build a hospital for the 5,000 or so
people who have been living here since October. It is as much an act of
defiance as it is a necessity. 

Over on the southern hillside, logs pushed into the ground for the
hospital's foundation are crispy black, salvaged from a village that
government troops burned in an effort to terrorize people into areas
securely under their control and, according to human rights observers, to
cleanse Burma of ethnic strongholds, especially those fighting for autonomy. 

Two other clinics that "Dr. Cynthia" built inside Burma already have been
wiped out. Funds for medicines are scarce. Increased migration to and across
the Thai border because of Burma's forced displacements and other human
rights violations has raised the cases of malnutrition, anemia and malaria
as well as the number of orphans and abandoned children. 

Last month, in recognition of the work she is doing among the Burmese
refugees, she was honored as the first recipient of the $25,000 Jonathan
Mann Award, given in honor of the international AIDS official who was killed
in last year's crash of a Swissair plane off Newfoundland. 

"Always new problems'

The 39-year-old physician's long black hair is always swept back into a
braid and her deep dark eyes swirl with the multitude of things that need to
be done. Still, she keeps finding ways to keep her people alive. 

"The work here on the border never ends," said Maung. "There are always new
problems, new sufferings." 

She, too, is a refugee - although an accidental one, she claims. She is a
Karen, one of the targeted ethnic groups singled out for persecution by the
Burmese military. Back in the late '80s, she was too preoccupied with caring
for sick people in her native territory to participate in the bubbling

political dissent against the oppressive military regime. 

But when soldiers started shooting at demonstrators in Rangoon, killing at
least 2,000, she left, along with the students and other activists from her
town, during the August 1988 government crackdown. They headed across the
border, where about 9,000 ethnic Burmese had for the previous four years
been making temporary homes in camps to escape fighting between rebel armies
and the Burmese military. 

Maung thought she wouldn't be gone long. But after three months, she was
restless and worried about the growing sickness among the new arrivals to
the camp. So she did what she knew best: doctoring. 

Border camps grow

She set up a clinic on the Thai side of the border, where she now lives with
her husband, brother and other relatives, just outside of the nearby trading
town of Mae Sot, only 5 kilometers from Burma's border. 

Since then, the number of camps along the border has grown to 16, providing
refuge for 110,000 ethnic refugees who hope - as Maung does - to return home
someday. Elsewhere along the border, another 300,000 Burmese have come
because there is no work or no safe way to earn money in their own country. 

The path to Maung's clinic in Mae Sot is well-worn. More than 100 patients
line up each day for free prenatal, pediatric and outpatient care. A
makeshift hospital, built last year of cinder blocks and chain-link fence,
has 28 beds. But patients of all ages can number up to 40, lying under
ceiling fans and a tin roof. The Burmese staff includes three doctors and 60
health workers, all volunteers who get food and shelter in exchange. 

The clinic also supports a primary school and boarding school for orphaned
and abandoned children, as well as women's organizations in the nearby Karen
refugee camps. It trains refugees to work as "backpack medics," traveling
back inside Burma with medicines and basic health care knowledge to treat
villagers who have been cut off from help. 

These days Maung does more managing than actual doctoring. When not teaching
the medics, she is off to the border to check on security and other issues
troubling the refugee communities. In the past two years, two camps on Thai
territory have been destroyed by raiding Burmese troops. 

She also must make time for her own two children, 4-year-old Chrystal, and
Peace, a 6-year-old who can't seem to get enough of his mother's attention.
His hands constantly tug on her Burmese or, standing on his toes, cover her
mouth during one of the many discussions she has with the clinic staff and

Maung's clinic is also popular with doctors and medical residents from
America and Europe, who come as volunteers for a few months. "I don't know
what all these people would do without Dr. Cynthia," said Maria Guevara, a
pediatrician from Venezuela working in Maung's hospital. "It is amazing what
goes on here."