Dr. Cynthia Maung: A Community Health Hero Shares Lessons Learned


September, 2012: Dr. Cynthia Maung wins U.S. Democracy Award! Learn more

On the Thai-Myanmar border, Dr. Cynthia Maung has earned a larger-than-life reputation for her success in galvanizing disparate groups to work together on a common goal: community health. 

Through her humble example, the founder of the Mae Tao Clinic has guided and inspired thousands — including many of us at Community Partners International.

Dr. Cynthia and staff use simple weapons: soap and toilets, antibiotics and education, microscopes and blankets, strong minds, gentle touch, a certain sense of hope. They fight ignorance, dirty water, mosquitoes, and fear. These are the worst kind of foes, for they are pervasive and elusive, quick to attack those who are weak.

Most war doctors bandage battle wounds. Dr. Cynthia treats war's chronic ills: poverty, disease, hunger, displacement. She works at developing communities, not just relieving pain. She urges people to build society, not destroy it.

Honored with more than a dozen international awards and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Cynthia exudes strength and serenity though she speaks softly. The Mae Tao Clinic’s success is not about her, she says. Credit goes to the community.

She urges health workers to do more than just medical things. “They need to rebuild the community, as well — learn to work together, negotiate, build trust and empower the people. We want the young people to feel that they are the people who can make change.”

In “From Rice Cooker to Autoclave at Dr. Cynthia’s Mae Tao Clinic,” Dr. Cynthia shares lessons learned during the past 20 years in hopes they’ll be helpful for those who come forward to serve. 

1.         No matter how bad the situation, you can always find ways to make it better. First, identify existing resources. Start with the people already working as community-resource providers — teachers, religious leaders, village heads, midwives, medics, grand-mothers — or the neighbor everyone looks to for help and advice. Take time to listen, show respect, and learn from their experiences. Work with them to identify needs and plan solutions using existing resources.
2.         Try to understand rather than to judge. If you judge people’s beliefs or practices, it’s harder to work as partners. For example, don’t fault a family for refusing to boil their drinking water if they only have one pot and it’s needed for cooking. Instead, try to provide another pot or find a more appropriate method for purifying their water. Understand people’s resources, emotions, and culture before you try to change their behavior.
3.         You can’t improve the health of the people without improving their community. Use a comprehensive, sustainable approach: nutrition, sanitation, clean water, medical care, and education. If people understand health and human rights, they’ll have the keys to building a healthy stable community. Then, if those rights are ever taken away, they’ll work to get them back. If the people aren’t educated, if they don’t have jobs, if they’re depressed — they won’t be able to care for themselves or their children. They will starve, get sick, and have accidents. Some daughters will enter brothels and some sons will join the army. They will have no choice.
4.         Train and use local people to work in their own community whenever possible in- stead of bringing in outsiders to provide services. Locals have a better understanding of a given political and social situation, geography and culture, and can move around more easily and safely. And since they’re from the area, they’re more likely to stay and network with other local leaders to improve the community.
5.         Wherever you go or whatever you do, reach out. Don’t isolate yourself. Learn the language and culture of your neighbors and host country. Work together with humble farmers, university professors, large non-governmental organizations, small community-based organizations. “Community is not based on ethnicity or country of origin,” Dr. Cynthia says. “It’s based on human rights, human dignity and security.”
6.         Rise above rumors, suspicion and fear. These are the regime’s most powerful weapons. They turn people against each other, erode the community, and destroy the heart.
7.         Don’t give up, even when things get really bad. “You can look back over your shoulder, and then they win,” Dr. Cynthia says, “Or you can look forward, and you win.”



Excerpted “From Rice Cooker to Autoclave at Dr. Cynthia’s Mae Tao Clinic” and “A Land of War, Journey of the Heart” copyright Paula Bock/Seattle Times