Suu Kyi’s Doctor Gets Down to Business

By Samantha Michaels 31 May 2013

With a pair of glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal physician reads notes to an assistant early one morning at a small charity hospital in downtown Rangoon, seated at a table with a vase of flowers, near an examination bed and a wooden crate stacked with books.

Dr. Tin Myo Win is widely known to be a close confidante of the democracy icon, as one of the few people permitted to regularly visit her during her years under house arrest, but he also has another important, though less glamorous, job. As the only surgeon at the Muslim Free Hospital, which offers free medical services in Burma’s biggest city, he often performs 10 surgeries in a single day, if not more, for patients who would otherwise be unable to pay for treatment.  

In a country where the government’s public hospitals are prohibitively expensive for most people, largely due to a starved national health budget, the Muslim Free Hospital stands out for its charity. Named for the religion of its founders, not its patients, the hospital is nonsectarian, serving all faiths and classes, although Tin Myo Win says he is the only non-Muslim department head. Thanks to his presence, the facility has become particularly popular among politicians, activists, former political prisoners and their families. “We see lots of [people] from the government, ministries, from different opposition parties and ethnic parties, the NLD [National League for Democracy], even the ruling USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party],” he says. “It’s like a small national conference.”

Outside the hospital, Tin Myo Win is also on the frontlines of a movement to reform Burma’s health care system, which was long neglected by the former military regime. At Suu Kyi’s request, he is raising funds to help renovate one of the country’s best-known public hospitals, while also developing a health policy for her NLD party. The Irrawaddy caught up with him earlier this month at the Muslim Free Hospital—before his morning round of surgeries, as he went over paperwork, took a phone call to discuss Suu Kyi’s travel plans, and enjoyed a breakfast of sweet tea and mohinga soup—to learn how he’s keeping busy as the country transitions from military rule.  

Question: Can you tell me about your background and how you came to work at the Muslim Free Hospital?

Answer: Professionally, I’m a surgeon, and I’ve been working here since 1992. Once I was in the government service as a teacher in surgery at Rangoon General Hospital, for 10 years. I left the service because during the 1988 [pro-democracy] uprising I led a very large group, the SCS, or the Supervisory Committee for Students movement. Later, I was invited by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to join the NLD, since I was the chairperson of this committee. Later I also became the family doctor of Lady Aung San Suu Kyi.

Most patients who undergo surgery [at public hospitals] have to pay all the costs—all the bandages, the medicines, even the stitches. Here, everything is free, except if people can afford to pay, then donations are welcome. That’s why I chose to work here. And it just so happens that most of the patients are politicians, student activists, and also their family members.

Q: How do you get the funding?

A: The funding, in fact, at first it was a religious practice. …Most of the Muslim community here donates to the hospital. … After I came to work here, some Western countries, including Australia and Japan, they tried to donate here. Just because I work at the hospital and also happen to be the personal doctor of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. …And at the same time, I’ve gotten to meet with embassies. Not only the West, the States, but also Asian countries, like India, later China and Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries—they’ve tried to donate to this hospital.

We try to help some of those people who cannot afford other hospitals. But this hospital is a small hospital. Here we supply everything. But some cases, like heart operations, brain operations and kidney operations, we cannot afford to do them here. In the building here, there is only general surgery.

Q: What happens if you cannot perform an expensive surgery here, but a patient does not have enough money to get the procedure anywhere else? Do you just have to say sorry?

A: Sorry. Without the service, how can you help? We can’t supply the money. Sometimes we refer patients to the Central Women’s Hospital [in Rangoon]. They’ve started to offer free services. We have to refer at least one or two patients a week to other hospitals—for brain tumors, heart problems, kidney problems.

Q: How many beds do you have here?

A: In surgery, we have about 25 beds—theoretically.  Sometimes we have to put [patients] in between the beds, so we can accommodate more than 35 or 40, if necessary. In the four major departments here, there are about 100 beds total.

Q: Is that enough?

A: No, no, no. Even for myself, I have to operate about 10 cases a day, sometimes 15. Theoretically speaking, you should only perform about five major operations a day as a surgeon. Sometimes I have to stay late into the evening. But not all of these are major operations. In some cases [like routine simple surgeries], I have to train some of the young doctors to operate on those patients. But for major cases, I’m the only surgeon here, so I have to operate myself.

Q: I understand that you’re part of a fund-raising committee to help renovate Rangoon General Hospital. Why do you want to upgrade that facility?  

A: It’s a long story. It was the decision of Aung San Suu Kyi. Our objective isn’t just to renovate, but to upgrade Rangoon General Hospital. The floor, the ceiling, everything—we need to renew it. At the same time, we need to accommodate more patients. … We decided we need to build a new hospital, not very far from the old one, near the nursing university. At present, the space is being used for car parking, but we are going to complete [the new hospital] within eight months to one year.

Q: How much money have you raised so far?

A: So far, in fact, in cash, we’ve gotten about 5 billion kyats [US$5.3 million] from Parliament. In the last meeting, the honorable guest happened to be Lord Darzi, the former minister of health of the United Kingdom. The speaker of the house, Shwe Mann, and the deputy speaker were also there, and they expressed that they had this amount of money [for the project]. At the same time, we are working very seriously with some of the donors, like JICA, the Japanese foundation.

Q: Beyond the hospital renovation, has there been any talk of broader health care reform?

A: In fact, this is part of my job. I recently formed the National Health Network under the NLD, in February. Then I started fundraising with a press conference at the Park Royal Hotel on April 6, and we starting working on the 7th, 8th and 9th, drafting the health policy of our country. Since the NLD is an opposition party, we need to have a very strong health policy. So we invited all the experts inside and outside the country. In that case, we’re targeting not only Rangoon General Hospital, but the entire country.

We [the network] have about 11 functions. The first is networking. We’re working with charities in the country, in Rangoon and outside Rangoon. We’re trying to visit with specialists. … And later we will also have a mobile clinic, including an ambulance service. We have surgeons, including myself, some gynecologists, some EMT surgeons for minor operations. … And then we’re trying to train doctors in all the areas we visit to do EMS, emergency medical services. If someone has a trauma or a car accident, then we need to have these services.

Q: Burma doesn’t have any emergency medical services?  

A: Except for ambulance service. But even then, it’s not widely practiced, and just transporting the patients from the site there [to the hospital]. We need some medics, doctors, nurses and medical equipment [on board] to save the life of the patient. Because [otherwise] when they reach the hospital, the patient is already lost.

Q: What about increasing the government health care budget?

A: Yes, of course. Universal health coverage is one of our objectives. … Since the NLD has 43 seats in Parliament, we are trying to raise the education budget and the health budget.

Regarding the health budget, they [Parliament] have increased it to about 3 percent [of the national budget]. But that’s very insufficient. … I am not a parliamentarian; I cannot say the exact figure. But still, we need to work a lot for this. For the Ministry of Health, we can understand, with the amount they have in their hands, they are doing quite a good job for the people, but how can you [fix everything] with this limited amount of budget? So we have to help or assist in fulfilling the needs of the people.