MAE SOT, Thailand — The explosion knocked Mya Win out as her teenage body went flying. When she regained consciousness, she found herself at a hospital in Mae Sot, the Thai border town long known for its ties to neighboring Burma.
When a doctor delivered the grim news of what had transpired and its implications, she could not contain her despair.
“I burst into tears when I learned that both of my legs were amputated,” Mya Win recounted. “I was so sad and felt helpless.”
It was in 2000 that Mya Win stepped on a landmine near a creek in the village of Shwe Kokekko, Myawaddy Township. Those who heard the blast arrived to the scene and found the 15-year-old lying in a pool of her own blood. She was rushed across the border to the hospital in Mae Sot, where doctors performed the surgery to remove what was left of her mangled lower limbs.
Born into a poverty-stricken family, Mya Win’s upbringing was marked by hardship and destitution. The Karen woman’s childhood dream was to become a teacher, but in a cruel irony, she never got a chance to go to school. She passed most of her childhood days doing household chores as her family eked out a living.
Mya Win was born in Chaung Na Kwa village, Mon State, where she lived in a thatched bamboo hut for most of her childhood. But entering her teens, she wanted to escape the grinding poverty of home life while contributing to the family’s meager income. As is the case for many young people in Burma, that meant leaving home to follow the money, wherever that might be.
A recruiter who came to her village promised Mya Win’s mother that the girl would be taken to Mae Sot. Instead, she was brought to Shwe Kokekko village near the Thai-Burma border, where she was tasked with babysitting and household chores at the residence of the recruiter. It was a seemingly innocuous request to fetch bamboo shoots for cooking that led Mya Win to the creek that fateful day 15 years ago.
To this today, Mya Win does not know who, or which organization, planted the landmine that forever changed her life. She does not expect that someone would claim responsibility, she hopes only that no more people meet the same fate.
On the hospital bed in Mae Sot, Mya Win’s thoughts turned with dread to her future. But then, unexpectedly, her fortune turned two weeks after her hospitalization, when she was transferred from Mae Sot Hospital to the Mae Tao Clinic, a well-known health facility run by Dr. Cynthia Maung. The Mae Tao Clinic put a roof over her head, and has provided her with a purpose ever since: Mya Win helps out at the facility as much as she can, whether it’s changing bandages or keeping lonely patients company.
Four years after she left her home village, she returned to see her mother. Before the landmine incident, she had been filled with hope at the life that awaited her. And while she did eventually end up in Mae Sot as the recruiter had promised, the circumstances of her arrival were a tragic deviation from the life she’d envisioned.
Her mother and friends treated her with compassion, but she said a strange guilt accompanied her return to village life; despite the obvious landmine trauma and its aftermath, her new life at the Mao Tao Clinic took on a privileged hue in light of the poverty that persisted back home.
“We are poor and we live a hand-to-mouth existence. Now, I live here [at the Mae Tao Clinic] with Doctor [Cynthia Maung],” said Mya Win.
She is 30 now, having spent the first half of her life in the bosom of a loving family that nonetheless struggled to provide, and the latter half in the care of Mae Tao Clinic founder Cynthia Maung, dubbed “Burma’s Mother Teresa.”
The clinic was largely a product of Burma’s nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988, catering to migrant workers along the border and the flood of Burmese refugees fleeing oppression in the aftermath of the former regime’s brutal crackdown.
For more than 25 years, the clinic has provided free medical care for people from all walks of life, and on any given day offers treatment to up to 300 patients suffering from various ailments. It has also provided prosthetic limbs for not only civilians like Mya Win, but also members of ethnic armed groups and even government soldiers.
Mya Win is at peace with the fact that she will never again walk with her own two feet. She does not know that the conflict in Burma is the world’s longest running civil war. She does not know that the government and ethnic armed groups are involved in ongoing peace talks to try to bring that war to an end.
She does not know that landmines are a problem not just in Karen State, but in many other ethnic regions as well.
With the country’s peace process moving forward, albeit haltingly, discussions are underway over how to go about demining areas wracked by decades of ethnic conflict. Very little substantive has come of this to date, however, and for Mya Win and many others, any eventual campaign to eradicate the scourge will have come too little, too late.