PARTNER STORIES

The Mae Tao Clinic: Two Decades of Health and Healing on the Thai-Myanmar Border

© J. WELLS

In 1989, a few months after leaving Myanmar, Dr. Cynthia Maung and a small group of students opened a makeshift medical clinic in a rickety wooden house on the dusty outskirts of Mae Sot, Thailand. The clinic had virtually no supplies, no money, no one who spoke Thai and (except for Dr. Cynthia) no staff formally trained in medicine.

All of the clinic’s medical instruments fit into the woven bag Dr. Cynthia had slung over her shoulder during their ten-night trek through the jungles of Burma’s eastern border region. With these limited tools and a commitment to care for all who fled conflict and poverty, the Mae Tao Clinic was born.

“We didn’t expect to be here 20 years,” Dr. Cynthia says. But unstable conditions prevented returning to their homeland, so the group continued to work at the humble clinic using limited resources, medicine, education and outreach to relieve human suffering and heal broken communities.

Two decades later, the Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) has grown into a comprehensive community health center and a hub for regional health training with more than 1,000 graduates serving clinics, schools, villages, factories, camps and slums along both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border. In many remote areas inside Myanmar, the clinic’s former students have become the only sources of medical care.

Mae Tao Clinic serves a target population of approximately 150,000 and shoulders an annual caseload of about 90,000 patients. The staff somehow squeezes as many as 200 patients into  the clinic’s 150 beds; runs a jungle field clinic; and feeds 2,000 school children, patients, staff and their families every day. About half of the clinic’s patients are from the local migrant community, with the rest traveling from inside Myanmar to seek health care.

The staff treats everything from minor maladies to malaria, tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, pneumonia, acute diarrheal diseases, diabetes, epilepsy, thyroid disease, cancer and mental illness. The clinic’s medics are trained in surgery, reproductive health (including labor and delivery), eye health, dental health, prosthetics, pediatrics, lab services, and social work.

MTC has set up safe houses for abused women and abandoned children; counseling and home-based treatment for HIV/AIDS patients; a mobile medic program to train and equip health workers in areas of Myanmar that have no medical care; an education and advocacy program — including 72 migrant school — to protect thousands of children (many without parents) from malnutrition, child trafficking and labor exploitation. The clinic also provides emergency food, shelter and medical care in the wake of environmental and political crises.

Mae Tao Clinic has become one of our most well established local partners. But we met when the clinic was quite small. Our collective relationship with Dr. Cynthia and the Mae Tao Clinic goes back more than a dozen years, when, individually, the founders of CPI forerunners — Planet Care and the Global Health Access Program (GHAP) — began working with and learning from Dr. Cynthia and her medics.

Dr. Cynthia’s compassion is infectious. Bob Condon, Community Partners International's Board of Directors vice-president, remembers hearing about her from Ben Brown, then a young California medical student who would soon found Planet Care. “Ben was headed back to Mae Sot with microscopes, textbooks, and medical supplies so his Burmese friends could set up a temporary clinic to provide medical care to other refugees. Ben’s passion to help inspired me to get involved in my own way — which was to call friends and ask for money.”

T. Lee, co-founder of GHAP also partnered with the Mae Tao Clinic early on as they were first learning how to be effective in bringing health and education to local communities. Over the years, our partnership with MTC has included training, financial support, documentation of health statistics and giving voice to the dire need for health and education programs for the people served by MTC and its community based partners.

In recognition of the clinic’s role in alleviating human suffering, Dr. Cynthia and the Mae Tao Clinic have been honored with many international humanitarian awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize (Australia), the John Humphries Freedom Award (Canada), Jonathan Mann Health and Human Rights Award (USA), Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (Philippines), World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child Honorary Award (Sweden), Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award (Taiwan), Catalonia International Prize (Spain), and Tan Khun Phandin Award (Thailand). Dr. Cynthia has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Cynthia shares 10 Lessons Learned