Physician to Karen refugees will receive BWA human rights award

Cynthia Maung is a Baptist medical doctor who has devoted nearly 30 years to providing healthcare to refugees living on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

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FALLS CHURCH, Va.—Cynthia Maung, a medical doctor who has devoted nearly 30 years to providing healthcare to refugees living on the Thailand-Myanmar border, will receive the Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award from the Baptist World Alliance.

The award recognizes individuals for significant and effective activities to secure, protect, restore or preserve human rights as stated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other declarations on human rights.

The BWA General Council will present the award to Maung during the BWA annual gathering in Bangkok, Thailand, July 2-7.

“Dr. Cynthia Maung is a woman of faith who has committed her life selflessly for the welfare of the poor and oppressed,” the BWA Executive Committee was told. “She is a member of the Kawthloolei Karen Baptist Churches and involved with the Asia Pacific Baptist Federation women’s work.”

Work among displaced Karen people

Maung was among the displaced Karen people who fled to and settled in Mae Sot, on the border between Thailand and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Since 1949, the Karen, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar, have been fighting for an independent Karen state. Hundreds of thousands of Karen and others from various ethnic groups have been killed in the conflict, and many Karen have fled across the border into Thailand.

Humble beginnings of Mae Tao Medical Clinic

In February 1989, five months after escaping Myanmar, Maung established the Mae Tao Medical Clinic with a staff of six in a dilapidated building. In the early days, she sterilized her medical instruments in a rice cooker. At its original location, the clinic frequently was affected by natural disasters such as floods. It since has relocated to a safer building.

The clinic opened in response to the prevalence of infectious and other diseases such as malaria and pneumonia in Mae Sot and other refugee camps. It received support from Baptists in Thailand and elsewhere, as well as the Karen and residents of Mae Sot.

Using donated medical supplies, Maung brought the malaria epidemic under control. Trauma victims with gunshot wounds and injuries from landmines received treatment, as well as those who needed maternity care and HIV counseling.

Medical clinic’s ministry expanded

By 2003, the clinic treated more than 42,000 patients per year and had a staff that included six doctors, 86 health workers, 150 other medical and administrative staff members and up to 40 international volunteers per year. 

The clinic, which now has a staff of more than 600, delivers up to 15 babies per day and fits 250 new and replacement prosthetic limbs each year. It treats between 300 and 400 patients daily, or up to 150,000 annually, including refugees, migrant workers and locals.

In addition to medical treatments, the Mae Tao Medical Clinic trains medical interns, nurses and hygienists. Its social programs include feeding more than 500 people twice each day.

Maung’s clinical interests in obstetrics and women’s reproductive health have broadened to include issues of domestic violence and human rights.

More than 50 nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, educational institutions and individual donors have supported the clinic and its programs.

Maung receives international recognition

Maung, the fourth of eight children, was born into a Baptist Karen family near Moulmein, Myanmar, in 1959.

She entered the Institute of Medicine II in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the medical school in which Karen, Mons, Arakanese and other minority students in Myanmar are concentrated.

After graduating from medical school in 1985, she worked in a private maternity clinic in Bassein, operated by her great-aunt, a nurse, in the beginning of her specialization in obstetrics and gynecology. She left that facility and worked at a clinic in the village of Eaim Du to be near her ill mother. Political crisis and unrest in the country in 1988 led her and others to flee.

Maung previously received the Jonathan Mann Award, sponsored by Swiss and United States health organizations, in 1999, as well as Southeast Asia’s Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2002, the Sydney Peace Prize in 2013 and the South Korean POSCO TJ Park Prize in 2015. She was named one of Time magazine’s Asian Heroes in 2003.

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