Karen refugee clinic pioneer wins Sydney Peace Prize | Asia Pacific

Karen refugee clinic pioneer wins Sydney Peace Prize

Karen refugee clinic pioneer wins Sydney Peace Prize

Updated 5 November 2013, 13:17 AEDT

A doctor from Myanmar has won this year's Sydney Peace Prize, for her work on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Dubbed the 'refugee doctor' Cynthia Maung founded the Mae Tao clinic almost 25 years ago, providing medical care to thousands of people, many ethnic Karens, displaced by the separatist conflict in their state.

Last year alone, the clinic recorded 150-thousand visits and made over 12-thousand admissions.

Dr Cynthia Maung is in Australia to receive her award.

She told me that the award also helps highlight the plight of refugees displaced by not just conflicts, but also economic development in Myanmar.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speakers: Dr Cynthia Maung, winner of the Sydney Peace Prize and founder of the Mae Tao clinic that treats refugees and displaced people. Dr Maung delivers the Sydney Peace Prize lecture at the Sydney Town Hall on 6th November

MAUNG: Almost thirty percent of population in Burma are ethnic people, and seventy percent are people living in very remote areas. So even with the democratic reform and political change in Burma is on the move, but until now, we haven't seen much changes for these vulnerable people. There has been ongoing ceasefire talks, but on the ground, the actual situation people are still suffering, (and have no access) to health services. Education and protection issues are still not addressed.

LAM: The plight of the Karens and indeed, other minority groups in Myanmar, doesn't figure very prominently in international coverage .. do you think your peace prize might now highlight some of the problems faced by these ethnic groups in Myanmar?

MAUNG: Ya, all the ethnic groups and the people of Burma, they really need the sustainable and long term engagement with all the ethnic groups, and to be a peaceful, democratic country. So we really feel that equal participation and inclusive dialogue, as well as to promote human rights is very essential part. There's more opening up on the economic and investment front, but we need to see more responsible investment in Burma, because many farmers' land have been confiscated and also more military posts around the village, so there's insecurity and uncertainty still exist. So people who're displaced from their homes for decades, they want to go back home and they want to stay in their own community and village. And as a people who can contribute for their community development work. It's too challenging to back home safely, as well as to get a better quality of life, or improve their family.

Currently, there's concern in Karen state or other ethnic states is investment that's going on. We have witnessed that (villages) become an economic zone, so land has been confiscated and people have been affected by the impact on the environment and some of their lands being flooded, and the disaster has a huge impact on their daily lives. Increasing or intensifying the military posts in the Karen state, to protect the projects, so people feel very insecure and say they cannot go back to their community.

LAM: Let's return to your work as a humanitarian doctor. You've been invited by the Myanmar authorities to return to Myanmar to set up a similar clinic there - why did you decline?

MAUNG: The clinic has been providing services for displaced and migrant communities on the Thai-Burma border. Access to health services - they're very challenging (for the displaced refugees), both physical, geographically and language issue. So, existing clinic not only provides services, but also it's a training centre for health workers along the Thailand-Burma border. It's an opportunity for ethnic groups to have a strong network, to improve the health system in their own community. We are working with different ethnic groups and supporting different community organisations, to empower their own community.

So instead of we going back (to Myanmar) and set up clinic inside, recognition (by the Myanmar authorities) of the existing health service and health infrastructure, and working together with the ethnic health organisations is very crucial for improving health services or the health system in Burma, as well as to build a democratic and decentralised health system.

LAM: But don't you think that by returning to Myanmar, you can perhaps help the local Myanmar authorities to change the culture, to be more democratic?

MAUNG: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, we have been providing services as well as empowering local community organisations and ethnic people. So the government needs to acknowledge and recognise all the existing health infrastructure and working together with these ethnic groups. This will bring better integration and promotion of democratic reform.

LAM: You set up the Mae Tao clinic almost twenty-five years ago now, and when you first started, you had to use a rice-cooker to sterilise instruments. What has changed since those early days? Is your centre better equipped now?

MAUNG: Yes, we currently have more than 600 health workers and we also provide comprehensive services for vulnerable population, including preventive services and maternal child health service. Currently we treat more than 100-thousand cases a year. So that means access to health service has increased and we would like to make sure that these people can access health services in their own community as well, not coming far from their village. That people can access health services nearest, closest to their community.

What we would like to see is, our health workers, who've been working on the border for many years, they also want to return to work in their community peacefully. So, a connection of the work of the health workers and community organisations is very crucial to continue to provide service to their home community, as well as improve participation of the community organisations, developing health system and health policy in Burma.


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