Dr. Cynthia Maung

‘Burma’s Mother Teresa’

Dr. Cynthia Maung doesn’t let it go to her head that people have described her as “Burma’s Mother Teresa.” Questioned by journalists about her humanitarian work, she tends to giggle softly and remind them that she wasn’t a very good student at medical school. “Even when I attended class, I did not always listen,” she told the Seattle Times.

Myanmar’s political crisis began when Maung was in medical school. [Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1989.—WPR] Maung’s classes were moved away from the University of Rangoon, and her teachers began to draw analogies between sick patients and a country with a political cancer. Still, it wasn’t until 1988, when she was working at the North Okkalapa General Hospital, that Maung’s life changed for good. As the military regime took power, soldiers in North Okkalapa began firing on demonstrators, killing many. Maung fled across the border to Thailand, sleeping in fields by day and walking through jungles at night.

“I thought it would all be over in three months and then we could return,” she told the Thailand-based Burmese magazine The Irrawaddy. When it became clear that this would not happen, she set up the Mae Tao Clinic on the Thai-Myanmar border to provide free health care for refugees, migrant workers, orphans, and jungle dwellers.

These days, Maung’s clinic serves 150 patients a day and trains 30 medics a year. During the rainy season, medics from the clinic venture into the jungle with baskets of medicine slung across their shoulders, looking for patients.

In 1999, Maung was awarded the first Jonathan Mann Award for humanitarianism. “Burma is faced with a health crisis,” she said in her acceptance speech. “We need to educate, encourage, and empower individuals to struggle for their human rights.”