FOR the first time the Sydney Peace Prize, awarded each year by the Sydney Peace Foundation to recognise the winner’s contribution to “peace with justice”, goes to a medical doctor.
Dr Cynthia Maung (pictured below) has been honoured for her dedication to multi-ethnic democracy, human rights and the dignity of the poor and dispossessed, and for establishing health services for victims of conflict.
The Sydney Peace Prize Jury noted that Dr Maung upholds the best humanitarian and ethical traditions of the medical profession.
Dr Maung, an ethnic Karen, fled her native Burma during the pro-democracy uprising of 1988 and set up the Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) on the Thai-Burma border. From its very humble beginnings the MTC, with the benefit of international support, has grown to the point where it now regularly treats thousands of people including refugees, migrant workers and orphans every year.
In addition to its onsite medical facilities, the MTC works with other community-based organisations to promote general health and advocate for social and legal services for the huge numbers of displaced people living along the Thai-Burma border and beyond.
In 2008, Dr Maung built a school where almost 1000 children, the offspring of migrant Burmese workers, arrive every day to attend lessons from kindergarten level to grade 12.
However, providing quality medical services remains the core of the MTC’s work, with 73 000 clients and 150 000 visits, including more than 12 000 admissions, recorded in 2012.
The MTC has a strong training program for health workers and is currently seeking a person to assist with writing the curriculum on health management and to, perhaps later, help train the senior health workers. It is also seeking a pharmacist and a physiotherapist.
The Australian Government has, until now, provided generous support especially in the area of maternal and neonatal health. The MTC safely delivered more than 3300 babies last year.
However, due to changes in government policy, AusAID funding will stop from next year and the MTC will be struggling to find the money to continue its work. The $50 000 Sydney Peace Prize will help, but much more is needed.
The MTC also relies on doctors from all over the world who volunteer their services or work for a basic salary. These include surgeons, physicians, haematologists, infectious diseases and tropical medicine specialists, eye specialists, paediatricians, and obstetricians and gynaecologists.
The MTC welcomes the assistance of Australian doctors and especially medical students, who have been particularly inspired and able. But be warned: working with the MTC is difficult.
One of the biggest challenges for Australian medical volunteers is being able to understand and appreciate that the MTC is a “low resource” environment — it is simply not possible to provide the level of care that we have come to expect in Australia.
Confronting decisions have to be made about who can be treated and who cannot. It is not a job for the fainthearted, but can be an uplifting and life-changing experience for the right people.
Information about working with the MTC is available on its website: www.maetaoclinic.org
Those interested in learning more about the work of the MTC, are invited to hear the remarkable Dr Maung deliver the City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture at 7pm on Wednesday 6 November at the Sydney Town Hall. Bookings can be made online.
Dr Maung will be presented with the Sydney Peace Prize at a gala dinner on 7 November at the University of Sydney. Bookings can be made online or call the Sydney Peace Foundation on (02) 9351 4468.
For more information about the lecture and the dinner, visit www.sydneypeacefoundation.org.au
David Hirsch is a Sydney barrister specialising in medical law. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Sydney Peace Foundation