Mae Tao Clinic, Thailand: A lifeline for Burma’s refugees
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Mae Tao Clinic, Thailand: A lifeline for Burma’s refugees

[NOTE: This post contains images that some readers may find disturbing]

In the two years since its historic general election, Burma has gone from something of a closed off mystery nation to the Southeast Asian country that is perpetually on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Supposed reforms, growing interest and investment from foreign nations and companies, and the ongoing discussion about human rights have kept many a diplomatic or journalistic tongue wagging, particularly in recent months.

Burma (aka Myanmar) will garner even more international attention next week with the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama, who was re-elected for a second term on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Obama is slated to meet with Burma’s President Thein Sein, as well as opposition leader and iconic democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The United States has taken great interest in Burma during the past year, including inviting the Burmese government to participate in military exercises with Thai and American forces. However, some human rights watchers have expressed reservations about the trip and the legitimacy it will give to the Thein Sein government.

While those conversations go on, life for many poor Burmese, a good number of whom are refugees, has not seen the significant improvements that were promised. At places such as Mae Tao Clinic, a hospital for migrant workers and refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand, need and poverty are still rampant.

Established in 1989 by Dr. Cynthia Maung, herself a refugee from Burma, Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) has since its founding been a kind of refuge for those in need of medical consultation and treatment. Today, MTC serves approximately 300 people a day, according to staff worker Jue Paw. Treatments range from simple eye exams to surgeries to delivering babies. When violence across the border flares, the staff will often see an increase in land mine victims. The patients at the clinic who await prostethic limbs or transfer to a larger hospital for more advanced care are stark reminders of how far Burma has yet to go.

The work being done at MTC is a number of things – grueling, inspiring, and utterly vital for poor Burmese and migrant workers who otherwise would not be able to afford health care for themselves or their families. Unfortunately, it is also potentially endangered as the clinic faces a shortfall in funding this year.

In June, the clinic issued an emergency funding appeal and declared that it was in danger of falling $600,000 short of its anticipated funding for 2012. Now, four months later, they have managed to recover a good portion of that but face an ongoing issue of strained budgets and resources. Already this year, staff and spending have been cut across departments. As of September, the clinic’s blog stated the overall budget for 2012 had been cut to 94 million Thai baht (about $3 million USD), down 10 million baht from the 2011 budget of 104 million.


A man suffering from an acid attack awaits transfer to a hospital. Photo/Will Moyer,

The number of patients who arrive at MTC has not fallen, however, and Paw said that already some patients have been limited to three-day stays at the clinic.

To witness the work being done at MTC is to know that this is a facility that should stay open. Strained though resources are, this is a safe place on which people rely to assist their families. Paw said that the government hospitals in Burma are far too expensive for many people, making clinics such as this one a lifeline for the poor.

The clinic’s services have become all the more important as Burma’s future remains to be seen. Asia Times reported early this year that organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the European Union have decreased funding and contributions to Thailand refugee camps and efforts, and many are investing money directly into efforts inside of Burma.

This could prove extremely problematic as more than 100,000 refugees are thought to be living in camps along the Thailand-Burma border. According to UNHCR, there are 92,000 registered refugees in Thailand, as well as 54,000 asylum seekers and several thousand others who crossed the border after ethnic violence broke out in 2010.


A list of patients waiting for prosthetic limbs at Mae Tao Clinic Photo/Will Moyer,

Despite some reports in September that the clinic would be moving to Burma, MTC will remain in Thailand for the time being to assist all of those who cannot go home or who cannot afford health care there.  Irrawaddy Magazine reported that Dr. Maung said the following in response to the rumors: “Our services are still very much needed along the border, as the government has a long way to go to provide adequate healthcare to the people of Burma, especially those in ethnic areas.”

Though the need for MTC’s services along the border is an ongoing reminder of the strife within Burma, the work being done at the clinic, and the people who work there, give cause for hope. Not only do they attend to illness and injury, the staff also educates patients about reproductive health and caring for their families; provides HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients with information on resources where they can find help and does outreach at schools about topics such as dental health. There is a great deal of suffering among the refugees and workers who have had to flee their homes, but there is goodness as well and people who understand their plight and want to help ease it however they can.