Dr. Cynthia Maung: How foreign donors can help bring peace to Burma

Dr. Cynthia Maung, director of the Mae Tao Clinic and recipient of the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize. Her clinic at the Thai-Burmese border opens its doors to Burmese refugees, migrants and orphans. Photo by: Mae Tao Clinic

Encouraged by Myanmar’s reform efforts, international donors have begun to shower the Asian country with aid.

But not everyone appears to be benefiting from the growing interest of foreign investors.

“Unfortunately, aid donors’ growing focus on Burma is coming at the expense of border-based community groups,” said Dr. Cynthia Maung, who runs a clinic on the Thai-Burmese border catering to Burmese refugees, migrants and orphans. “Everyone thinks that refugees will go home and those who stay will get registered in Thailand. But we know that this won’t happen that easily.”

Maung is a displaced Burmese herself whose story is worthy of a movie or a novel. On the night of Sept. 21, 1988 — just days after the military seized power — she fled through the jungle for the border alongside 14 other pro-democracy activists. As they moved through remote villages during the weeklong journey, they used limited supplies to treat people suffering from injuries and disease. Five months later, she opened the Mae Tao Clinic.

Staffed by 700, the clinic provides comprehensive health and child protection services to some 150,000 people per year. For her work, Maung — simply called “mother” by many of those the clinic serves — has received numerous awards, including the Asian version of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Magsaysay Award for community leadership, in 2002. This November, the ethnic Karen medical doctor will officially receive the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize for “her dedication to multiethnic democracy, human rights and the dignity of the poor and dispossessed, and for establishing health services for victims of conflict.”

In our exclusive interview, obtained with the help of one of the clinic’s senior officers, Yasmin Ahammad, Maung shares her thoughts on the struggles of border communities as donors focus their attention on Yangon and other parts of the country.

How will increased donor attention on Burma impact your cause?

We have seen growing displacement in Burma as a result of land confiscation and development projects. More exploitation and rights abuses will push more people to the border. There is also significant economic development on the border, which will attract laborers, many of whom are likely to be undocumented. Our workload will therefore grow, but the uncertainty of our future funding is making it stressful for our staff and the patients who rely on us for our services.

As donors are moving their funds away from the border, there is a lot of pressure for us [the clinic] to also move inside the country. But there are enough government and community hospitals and clinics in Burma already. They just need more investment and a coordinated health policy that fully takes into account the needs of the community and the challenging context.

If donors just focus on delivering aid via Yangon to [international nongovernmental organizations] who are directly implementing, they will find it difficult to access the most vulnerable populations. Community-based organizations, many of which have their administrative bases on the border, are best placed to understand the local context and gain the trust of the community. We’ve also seen a lack of coordination and standardized approach when iNGOs directly implement and iNGOs tend to leave areas when their projects are over, which will not lead to sustainable development and community ownership.

Donors also need to understand the context in which they are working. For example, in health, the system in Burma is highly centralized and top-down. If you only work within this system, the effectiveness and sustainability will be questionable within the community. People in Burma are highly mobile and conflict-affected, whether due to ethnic, religious, resource or land conflicts. Delivering health through this centralized system will not be enough without making a space for CBOs and enabling a multisectoral, rights-based and participatory approach.

What should the aid community do to help resolve the border conflict peacefully?

Donors must empower local civil society organizations, not sideline them. It’s only through civil society engagement and participation that communities will start to heal after decades of conflict and oppression. Donors can support civil society by empowering them to report human rights abuses and to help them cope with trauma. There are former soldiers living side-by-side with victims who have been abused by different authorities. To start healing these rifts and move toward peace, civil society must be strong.

Donors can also help by monitoring population displacement and looking at the impact on health. Armed conflict has still not being resolved in some areas. People are being displaced by infrastructure projects. Yet economic development is being pushed ahead of the political process and education and health policy in the border areas. This can lead to more instability.

The current flooding crisis could be an opportunity to engage CBOs and build peace strategies. We are also seeing more and more natural disasters in Burma. The U.N. agencies and iNGOs develop contingency plans and discuss disaster preparedness. But when disasters hit, it is always the network of local civil society groups that are first able to access areas. We can see this in the latest flood relief response in eastern Burma, as well as with Cyclone Nargis and populations affected by armed conflicts. We don’t have a good system of preparedness and planning, but we are always first on the ground. But with more disasters as well as religious conflict, we would like stronger policy and coordination.

From your vantage point, what changes do you see in Myanmar’s development?

We hope to see stronger partnerships between Yangon-based groups and border-based groups, working toward a common goal. So many people I know and have met over the last two years are very excited about going inside Burma and seeing the change for themselves. As people start to do that more, social networks will develop and people will make better connections. But those connections need to develop into partnerships in order to create real lasting change and deliver effective services.

The border civil society groups will still have to play a significant role, whether based in Thailand or Burma, as there will always be a population that is moving back and forth across the border. This population needs health, education and protection of human rights. There also needs to be a specific border health policy in Burma, as well as cross-border collaboration. Mae Tao Clinic has built up strong networks in both Thailand and Burma and we hope to continue acting as a bridge between the two countries.

We are seeing investment coming to the eastern states but with this is coming land confiscation and more human rights abuses. The building of the dams is an example of this.

The CBOs should be engaged in all steps of these processes and ensure there are positive impacts for the communities. They should be engaged so that the negative impacts are mitigated. The development that is being brought to the communities could enhance their health and welfare through infrastructure development but we are not seeing this flow to the communities rather to neighboring countries or to a certain section of the community. Not all people are benefiting from these changes.

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About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.