Cynthia Maung was born December 6, 1959, and grew up in a woven bamboo house on a narrow dirt lane in the outskirts of the Burmese city of Moulmein. She was the fourth of eight children in a Karen family.
The oldest child, a boy, died from infection after a traditional village midwife cut his umbilical cord with a bamboo sliver. Dr. Cynthia's mother insisted on hospital deliveries for the following four girls and three boys. Oddly, young Cynthia and her sisters most longed for their older brother when they wanted to go to the movies. It was not proper for girls to go to the cinema unaccompanied, and their father, a health assistant, was often in rural villages delivering medicine; their mother, busy with their three little brothers.
I tried to find out whether it was the bamboo sliver or her mother or her father's rural work or what it was that inspired young Cynthia to be the visionary humanitarian she is today. But the conversation would always squirm away and Dr. Cynthia would end up laughing about Burma's lame romance movies and how, after school, she and her sisters would fritter away time carrying water from the deep brick well and splashing each other at the cistern and rereading old magazines until the kerosene burned low and they were too sleepy to study.
At the end of high school, young Cynthia took a national exam along with tens of thousands of other students. Only 20 percent passed. The top 500 scorers went to medical school.
"I not much study and could still get high marks," she sheepishly explained. What were you ranked? I asked. She laughed. "Over 400, 450, something like that."
Burma began unraveling while Dr. Cynthia was in medical school. Classes were moved away from the University of Rangoon, canceled, moved back. On campus there were whispers about corruption and change. A few professors urged students to examine their patients' lives, the suffering of the people, and ask themselves, Why?
Dr. Cynthia can't quite remember those lectures. Perhaps she skipped them. Politics was dangerous. She was more interested in gossiping with her girlfriends under the trees and sneaking away to the movies. "Even attend the class, did not always listen," she laughed. "Just copy down what the teacher write. Or maybe sleepy."
After medical school, Dr. Cynthia trained at several hospitals in and around Rangoon, including North Okkalapa General Hospital, a peeling blue building we visited this spring. In the long wards patients rested on flaking iron cots among the steady drip drip of I.V. bags and that familiar hospital smell of blood and iodine. The hospital sits in a working-class neighborhood of small dusty shops with low benches out front. The roadside is cluttered with carburetors, tri-shaws and grimy soda bottles. Women walk slowly in the heat, holding black umbrellas.
Normally, North Okkalapa is a sleepy neighborhood. But in 1988, a few years after Dr. Cynthia had finished her training, North Okkalapa was where "soldiers knelt in formation and fired repeatedly at demonstrators in response to an army captain's orders," according to a U.S. State Department report. "The first deaths were five or six teenage girls....(Throughout Rangoon) deaths probably numbered over two thousand, but actual numbers can never be known."
Chaos spread across the country, even reaching the small Karen village where Dr. Cynthia worked in a private clinic. She fled across the border into Thailand, walking through the jungle at night and sleeping in fields by day. She wound up in Mae Sot and lived in Huay Kaloke refugee camp. With help from foreign relief workers and Karen leaders, Dr. Cynthia started a makeshift medical clinic to care for refugees recovering from war wounds and malaria.
She expected to return to Burma in three months.
Nine years later, Dr. Cynthia is still on the border. In that time, she has gone from sterilizing medical instruments in an aluminum rice cooker to running a clinic that treats 150 patients a day, delivers 10 to 20 babies a month, trains 30 medics a year and provides prenatal checkups, childhood immunizations and education about nutrition, sanitation and family planning.
Dr. Cynthia and her medics venture where foreign workers are not officially allowed _ inside Burma, into the steadily shrinking swaths of jungle still under hill-tribe control. During the rainy season, when mud and rivers isolated villagers from the rest of the world, Dr. Cynthia sends teams of burly medics into the jungle on foot carrying baskets of medicine slung across their foreheads. Her medics teach traditional midwives sterile-birthing techniques so they won't cut umbilical cords with bamboo slivers. Her field clinics, before they were attacked, provided health care and community services in tribal villages such as Chogali.
Among foreign doctors and relief workers, Dr. Cynthia has a larger-than-life reputation as a doctor, diplomat, administrator, saint.
"She is known not but what she says but by what she does," says Dr. John MacArthur, a primary health care supervisor for the International Rescue Committee who has worked on the border since 1991.
"You never hear her boasting or trying to take credit for her work. She's doing this for the people, the community. A lot of people in this movement do things for reputation. Then other people don't like them because it's obvious they're doing it for themselves. I can honestly say, since I first met Dr. Cynthia, I've never heard anybody speak poorly of her."
In a conflict where in-fighting, corruption and inefficiency abound, Dr. Cynthia is trusted to use money wisely for humanitarian aid. Her work is supported by private donors and foreign aid from the U.S., France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany, England, Thailand and Slovenia.
Many other Burmese doctors have resettled abroad, where life is easier and safer. Not Dr. Cynthia.
"They will enjoy their life or not? I don't know. Maybe not," Dr. Cynthia says. "If you go and you leave, the first thing is you cannot work for your people. Anyway, here, we enjoy what we are doing."
Dr. Cynthia lives above the Mae Sot clinic in a small room she shares with her husband, Kyaw Hein, and her two children, 5-year-old Peace and three-year-old Crystal.