MAE SOT, Thailand — Dr. Cynthia Maung is a Burmese physician and activist who founded the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand in 1989 after she fled Burma following a brutal crackdown on opposition activists in 1988. The clinic provides free treatment to Burmese migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons and others who are unable to access healthcare in Burma. The clinic treats 100 to 150 outpatients every day.
As funding wanes on the Thai-Burma border, the Mae Tao clinic is also experiencing a decline in funding. The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Saw Yan Naing interviews Dr. Cynthia Maung about the current situation at the clinic and the challenges of declining funding.
What changes have occurred since the clinic moved locations last May?
The main difficulty is transportation because the clinic is far from downtown. Access is not as convenient for patients and staff, especially at night, for safety reasons. But the new space is larger, cleaner, and more comfortable – an overall better workspace.
Do you find the number of patients increasing or decreasing?
We regularly receive between 100 and 150 outpatients every day. And we routinely have about 150 inpatients filling our 160 available beds. The number of patients suffering from malaria has decreased but otherwise, there is no significant change in the numbers.
Do you have any plans to move the clinic to Burma eventually?
We are cooperating with the Burmese government in some areas of the country, especially rural locations. We are also seeking permission for medics who are trained at our clinic to work inside Burma. We have no plans to move to Burma for the time being.
What difficulties are you experiencing with the decrease in funding on the border?
There is a significant decline in funding for cross-border aid, as more funding has been moved into Burma.
Global Fund cut financial support for Tuberculosis and HIV programs in Thailand, which affected our clinic. It has become challenging for us to provide treatment to HIV and mentally-ill patients, as well as carry out emergency operations. It has also become difficult to cover the costs of transferring patients to Thai government hospitals.
Our funding is contingent on projects, many of which will end in October and November. After this, much of our funding will be channeled from Rangoon and we will have to discuss [with donors] how to manage the delivery of these funds to the countryside. It is challenging to receive funding from inside Burma so we expect some difficulties in the years to come.
What do you think about ongoing reforms and the peace process in Burma, especially in Karen State and the areas near Mae Sot? Have the reforms benefitted people or the health sector in these areas?
There are still insufficient human resources, capacities, facilities, and medicines in Burma. So, it is difficult for patients to return and receive treatment in hospitals there.
In Karen State, there is a large population spread along the Thai border. Both governments should cooperate to reach this community. There is still no good system in place for the migrant community to receive legal healthcare services. They are limited as many of them do not have legal IDs or documents to travel freely.