Dr Cynthia Maung visited Canberra last week as part of a delegation of prominent humanitarian workers seeking a review of Australia’s aid commitment to Burma. They travelled to the nation’s capital to request a moderate increase in the funding received by Cross Border Organisations in Thailand.
Dr Maung shared the 2008 Catalonia International Prize with Aung San Suu Kyi and may have hoped that recent media coverage of Suu Kyi’s trial would help her cause. For 20 years, Maung’s Mae Tao Clinic has served as a crucial resource for Burmese refugees and migrant workers seeking health care across the border in Thailand.
Her delegation returned empty-handed to the Thai-Burma border on the weekend but they remain committed to continue their efforts to negotiate a funding review with the help of APHEDA, the ACTU’s overseas humanitarian aid agency — who brought the delegation to Australia for a series of conferences and meetings with Australian Government authorities.
"The Australian Government has committed $29 million dollars in aid to Burma this year, but of that less than one million will make it to the eastern border region — the region that needs it the most," said Zoe Bedford of APHEDA.
One of the world’s longest running, yet least reported, conflicts has turned the Thai/Burma border region into a lethal game of hide and seek, with the Burmese military battling ethnic resistance groups as generations of villagers suffer extreme hardship.
"Over the past 20 years we have run the clinic, there has been ongoing fighting and displacement along the border. Today more than 550,000 people are internally displaced, as well as two million living in Thailand. We try to address this crisis as best we can," said Dr Maung in Sydney last week.
The steady wave of refugees into Thailand continues. A recent escalation of fighting in Shan State has been the catalyst for another surge in numbers fleeing conflict.
Those who have made it across the border to jungle refugee camps or towns such as Mae Sot are by bureaucratic definition mostly "illegal". Unable to obtain official papers from the Thai authorities and therefore under constant threat of deportation, this refugee population is a ready source of sweatshop labour thoroughly exploited by Thai manufacturers.
"Those without papers always go into hiding if Manchester United lose a game of football. To pay off gambling debts from the game, the Thai authorities will threaten the workers with deportation if they don’t pay up," said Burma expert Dr Jane Ferguson at last week’s Burma Update conference at the Australian National University.
Dr Sean Turnell, head of Burma Economic Watch at Macquarie University claims that the junta spends around 70 cents per capita each year on health care. Little, if any, of that nominal amount makes it to the conflict zones in the east. "It is very difficult to take any official numbers too seriously. At best 70 cents is making it to the people of Burma not in these conflict zones. You need to remember we are dealing with officially the second most corrupt country in the world … the work done by these CBOs is crucial," said Turnell at the conference.
The establishment of the Back Pack Health Worker teams in Mae Sot in 1997 is a clear example of the sheer determination to help that exists on the border. The teams receive training at Dr Maung’s clinic from medical staff before crossing the border with a backpack of supplies to administer primary health care to those in need.
Risking arrest for their work, in the wake of last year’s Cyclone Nargis, the group had teams providing relief in the disaster area within days while the international aid community was stuck at the airport in Bangkok.
The parallels with official aid policy are striking. With a clear lack of transparency, international aid money doesn’t go very far once it has reached official channels inside Burma. The shady money-changing practices of the regime aside, the multilateral aid organisations that receive most of the Australian aid money have no access to eastern Burma — and thus have no way of providing support. Again, stuck at the gate.
This is the point that Maung’s delegation was striving to make. "There are few interventions in public health that get you more bang for your buck than interventions to reduce maternal and child deaths," said delegation member Voravit Suwanvanichkij. "Burma was once the rice basket of South East Asia yet the literal disinvestment in the country by the junta has seen it become the region’s basket case."
Michael Wilson, the Assistant Director-General of AusAID’s Southeast Asia Branch, made Australia’s position clear last week in Canberra. "Burma is not number one, is probably not even number two, but it is high on the list of countries we need to try and work with despite the unique challenges presented."
Echos of Wilson’s line can be heard all over Canberra. Although there is positive support for the work of people like Dr Maung, there will be no change in Australian aid policy toward Burma due to alleged issues of geopolitics. At this point, it’s useful to point out that the USA, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Ireland and Canada all managed to commit significant funding to the Thai-Burma border region this year.
After speaking with Bob McMullan, the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Dr Maung was disappointed but resilient. "Mr McMullan appeared sympathetic to the dire needs of the internally displaced in eastern Burma, she reported. "But as AusAID has already prioritised aid through Rangoon, his kind words won’t help or stop the suffering for thousands of our people. AusAID money will be going where it cannot reach any of Burma’s most vulnerable people."
In the meantime, Maung will continue her tireless work at the clinic, supporting desperate people who are too often forgotten.
This article has been edited for accuracy since it was published.
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