"The prize is a way of bringing attention to Burma"
The winner of this year's Sydney Peace Prize, to be announced on Saturday, is fighting for the future of her internationally-renowned health clinic based in Thailand after AusAid slashed its funding last month. As famous in Myanmar as her fellow countrywoman Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr Cynthia Maung, 54, has not returned to her homeland since she was forced to flee it, 25 years ago next month, during the great 8888 Uprising.
The prize is a way of bringing attention to Burma. The Sydney Peace Foundation will announce on Saturday that Dr Maung is the winner of the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize, an international award that celebrates the achievements of an individual who demonstrates in daily life a commitment to the pursuit of peace with justice. Maung has been running a clinic that she founded herself in 1989 in a dilapidated shed in the middle of a muddy field in the northwestern Thai border town of Mae Sot.
Advertisement But the woman affectionately known as ''Mother'' and her 580-odd staff, most of them from Myanmar like herself, are still reeling from AusAID's announcement last month that it won't continue its funding of the clinic into 2014. Last year, its contribution of 13 million baht ($456,000) amounted to one quarter of the total donations it received. "This money was crucial to improving maternal and child health-quality services to these vulnerable people on the border," says Maung. "We're at a loss to understand the decision." In humble surrounds she treats internally displaced people from Myanmar who continue to be deprived of adequate healthcare in their own country by a harsh ruling junta.
They travel, sometimes for days on end, to reach the sanctuary of the Mae Tao Clinic, a place where they can safely give birth to their babies, seek treatment for the complex strain of malaria endemic to the region and have their children vaccinated. Last year, it recorded a total of 148,561 visits. The strong credentials of the clinic won over the peace prize judges. "What Dr Cynthia has achieved against the odds really impressed the jury," says foundation chair Professor Stuart Rees. "Her selflessness and the notion that justice is about not financially penalising people for being sick, that healthcare shouldn't be a commercial proposition, affected them greatly." Previous recipients of the award include Sekai Holland, Professor Noam Chomsky, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Xanana Gusmao, president of the National Council for East Timorese Resistance.
Maung, a woman of immense but quiet dignity, acknowledges the honour with a gracious incline of her head. "The prize is a way of bringing international attention to the plight of Burma," she says. "It highlights that the peace process needs to be monitored by the international community. It's not going to be a gift."