In an interview with Karen News reporter, Henry Zwartz, Dr Cynthia Maung explains why she honoured to receive this year’s Sydney Peace Prize, but expressed dismay with the Australian government’s decision to stop funding her clinic as of December 2013.
The Sydney Peace Prize is Australia’s only international prize for peace. It is awarded to commend an organization or individual “whose life and work has demonstrated significant contributions to the promotion of human rights, peace and justice.” Past Recipients of the Peace Prize have included Xanana Gusmao, president of the National Council for East Timorese Resistance, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Professor Noam Chomsky.
Dr. Cynthia has not returned to Burma since fleeing her mother country 25 years ago during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. The clinic she founded in 1989 on the Thai Burma border treats displaced people, refugees and migrant workers from Burma unable to access basic medical attention in their home country. In the latest budget the military-backed government led by ex-general Thein Sein devoted 3.9% of national funds to health, whilst 21% of the budget was devoted to defence spending.
Founded in 1989 as nothing more than a small, sparsely equipped shed on the outskirts of Mae Sot, Dr. Cynthia now has around 600 staff within a large complex, which treats a vast range of injuries, ailments, illnesses, and provides vital medical training for scores of future medics.
On edge of survival
In an interview in Sydney the day before she was set to receive the prize, Dr. Cynthia told Karen News that despite growing international recognition for issues confronting the Thai-Burma border communities, many organizations such as hers were still struggling to survive with every year providing new challenges in getting enough money to keep things going.
Quietly spoken, Dr. Cynthia’s calm manner hides an immense resilience and dignity. But she has expressed her personal “shock and pain” at hearing that Mae Tao clinic’s second largest donor, AusAID, is slashing $450,000 (13 million baht) from Mae Tao Clinic by announcing no further plans to fund her Clinic as of December 2013.
Mae Tao Clinic is internationally renowned for providing life saving healthcare to hundreds of thousands of people – around 50% of them come direct from Burma the rest work as migrant workers in Thailand. Her patients, some of whom travel treacherous journeys for days on end to reach the refuge of Mae Tao Clinic, seek medical assistance denied in their homeland.
Last year the clinic treated over 148,561 people. During that time the Clinic also fitted 268 prosthetic limbs, 3,319 babies were born at the clinic and 240 future medical staff were trained in 5 separate training courses. It has received visits from high-level politicians including former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and former First Lady of the United States Laura Bush.
Dr Cynthia is shocked at AusAID’s decision. “Australia should be scaling up support for community health networks, rather than abandoning them,” said Dr. Cynthia. “Cutting vital health services to the ethnic peoples is not the way to build trust in Burma’s peace process.” She added, “It is very surprising and painful for us that the Australian government is cutting funding. This assistance was very crucial for us. With the AusAID budget we focused on child health and HIV care and prevention services.” She added that the money was also used to train midwifes for communities all along the border region. Dr. Cynthia said that she hoped the prize would bring more international attention to border issues, and that Australia’s decision was short sighted “it is very essential for us to continue our struggle. Especially improving women and children’s health is protecting the future of Burma. We need to encourage the Australian government to take a more active role in building peace in Burma.”
Australia’s policy shift and its implications
Australia’s government has already come under harsh criticism over the decision. Union Aid Abroad APHEDA, is a Mae Tao Clinic Australian partner and its executive officer, Ms Kate Lee, slammed the funding decision, “the funding directly assisted vulnerable communities with essential healthcare including maternal health, eye care, prosthetics for land mine victims, child health, vaccinations, HIV services and more. It is not right to jeopardize these vital services at this time.”
APHEDA estimated that 45,000 people had directly benefited from Australia’s efforts. One official at APHEDA put it more bluntly to Karen News describing the Australian government’s funding decision as “a slap in the face.”
According to AusAID’s own figures, Mae Tao Clinic “reduced the perinatal mortality rate from 39.2 per 1,000 live births in 2010 to 24.7 per 1,000 live births in 2011.” Moreover, the Clinic “provided skills training for 246 healthcare workers to support primary healthcare services.
These positive results notwithstanding, the selection criteria in awarding Australian government funding this year heavily favoured organisations that were looking to assist in moving refugees back to Burma. This was in spite of the fact that many groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, saying that such moves would be “premature” and that “a lot more needs to be done,” before refugees could safely return to Burma.
When contacted by email, a spokesman from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said that the government was “committed to increasing effectiveness of the aid program,” through working with the “most effective partner organisations.” DFAT added, “the NGOs delivering this support were selected on the basis of the quality of their proposals through a competitive, merit based process that was completed in July 2013.”
The DFAT statement indicated a shift in government policy towards prioritizing refugee return. “Australia is funding organisations on the Thai-Burma border whose assistance aligns with the current and prospective needs of refugees. An independent evaluation of Australia’s existing programs recommended future support focus on preparing refugees to return home when conditions permit.”
The DFAT spokesman added that “based on these recommendations, AusAID completed a competitive tender process for a new aid package for refugees in July 2013. A proposal to partially fund the Mae Tao Clinic was unsuccessful as it did not align with the objectives of the new program and its services do not reach as many refugees as those of successful applicants.”
Yet international organisations are skeptical of the shift in policy. The United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a presence in both Burma and neighboring Thailand where over 140,000 refugees from Burma live, said that the conditions in Burma were “not yet conducive enough to allow for a voluntary and sustainable repatriation.”
The UNHCR added, “A national protection mechanism must be in place,” where refugees were guaranteed “material security, such as access to land and/or a means of livelihood, and support for sustainable reintegration activities.” Specifically the “required guarantees and the conditions to allow for the safe and dignified return of refugees are not yet in place.”
A host of community-based-organisations from across Burma have echoed unease over the push for refugee repatriation.
Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), did not see conditions have improved in Burma to allow refugees to be repatriated yet.
“We don’t see the conditions yet for refugees to return with safety and dignity. If you look at the overall situation in Eastern Burma there is still no rule of law, human rights abuses are endemic and heavy militarization is ongoing.”
The KWO is a community-based-organisation representing 49,000 ethnic Karen women who work inside the refugee camps that dot the Thai-Burma border.
Jessica Nhkum, Joint General Secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), told Karen News that the Australian government’s funding cuts to Mae Tao Clinic would have a domino effect on the healthcare for ethnic minorities.
Jessica Nhkum is especially concerned about the potential impacts the loss of funding would have on poor rural areas across Eastern Burma, “our health workers need advanced training, so if they can’t get access to this kind of training through Dr. Cynthia’s Clinic then we don’t know where we will get it and this affects us all.”
Jessica Nhkum explained to Karen News clinics in conflict zones would be directly affected and points to a large clinic on the Burma-China border that treats 20,000 displaced people by conflict in Kachin State. “All of the health workers there received their training at Dr. Cynthia’s clinic.”
Now doing more with less, Dr. Cynthia has vowed to continue her work as ever, “Our people are very resilient and will deal with all of these difficulties. The patients could be the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters of our health workers, so we have to be resilient. Even with smaller resources, we have to continue to improve health.”