No end to challenges for heroic duo

7 November 2013

Sydney honours two formidable women from Myanmar this month. On Wednesday night Dr Cynthia Maung accepted the Sydney Peace Foundation's annual prize for the world-renowned medical clinic she founded on the Thai-Myanmarese border which has treated thousands of patients since 1989. Later this month Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will receive two honorary degree from the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney at the Opera House.

Their visits aren't the only parallels between the two. They are referred to fondly in Burma as "Mother" and "the Lady" respectively. In the aftermath of Myanmar's 8888 uprising in 1988 when people took to the streets to protest against the government's rule and subsequent crackdown, both have made considerable sacrifices in the service of their people. Both have remained committed to Myanmar's need for reform over more than two decades; both have earned numerous awards recognising their efforts; both have worked under extremely challenging conditions that might have discouraged others; these did not dampen their resilience.

For more than 20 years Suu Kyi sought the release of political prisoners, advocated sanctions against the government, and tried to rally support for her party, the National League for Democracy. She was repeatedly put under house arrest and on one occasion her convoy was attacked. The insecurity associated with an authoritarian government did not weaken her voice.

Maung opened the Mae Tao Clinic in 1989 on the outskirts of the Thai border town of Mae Sot, where she treated people from Myanmar who risked illegal border crossings for emergencies such as pneumonia, malaria and landmine injuries. Mae Sot has been described as home to "refugees, rebels, medics and misfits"; rebels and mercenaries recruit fighters and spies, looking to capture or assassinate anti-government elements. It is astonishing the clinic evolved from a one-room building with equipment sterilised with a rice cooker, to a revered institution that has medical facilities recording 150,000 visits annually, a school for migrant children, and training for Myanmarese and international medical staff.

While it is heartening to know both women triumphed over their circumstances, now they face new challenges. Suu Kyi needs to respond to popular sentiments in Myanmar to succeed in the 2015 elections.

For Maung, AusAID has announced it will cease to fund her clinic next year, meaning a 25 per cent cut to its health budget. Reduced funding and increased need will put the clinic in a precarious position, despite the commitment of staff who have taken pay cuts to maintain service.

With a quasi-civilian government at its helm, Myanmar's transition is incomplete. Suu Kyi and Maung continue to promote reform, aware that insecurity remains a feature of life in their country. Challenges have never stopped these committed women. But the international community's continued focus is critical to ensure reform in Myanamar continues on the promising path these women have forged.

Dr Susan Banki is a lecturer in the human rights program at the University of Sydney.

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