McCain hails border clinic, urges funding

US senator John McCain, who will meet with government officials in Burma today, told reporters in the Thai border town of Mae Sot yesterday that more funding was needed for the lauded Mae Tao clinic, which treats thousands of Burmese each year.

The 2008 presidential hopeful arrived in Thailand on Monday for talks with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, before heading to Mae Sot the following day where he visited refugee camps and met with Dr Cynthia Maung, who runs the clinic.

“It’s one of the most impressive efforts that I’ve ever seen in the world, and I believe that Dr Cynthia in certain areas needs some extra funding both from governments and some charitable organisations in the US,” he said.

The clinic opened in 1989 and has received praised for its apolitical stance, treating anyone from migrant workers to government militia troops. Its largest group of patients however is the thousands of refugees that cross into Thailand each year to escape conflict in neighbouring Karen state.

The Burmese government is thought to spend less than a dollar per person each year on healthcare, or 1.3 percent of its total annual budget. The woeful conditions of hospitals inside Burma means that the majority of those close to the border often choose to seek treatment in Thailand, where life expectancy is around seven years higher.

“I know that a couple of years ago Laura Bush [former US First Lady] was here and came back carrying the same message, so it’s very rare that I get the chance to meet a true saint, so this has been my opportunity and my honour,” McCain said.

The 74-year-old, who unsuccessfully ran for the US presidency three years ago, is travelling to Burma on his own initiative as a member of Congress, and will meet with members of parliament and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Few details have been released about the itinerary for the trip, which follows closely behind that of Joseph Yun, the deputy US assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau who spent several days there last week.

“I’ll meet with government leaders and discuss the situation regarding refugees and the treatment of the minorities,” McCain said. “I’ll point out that because of the unrest and attacks on minorities, they’ve had to come to Thailand to live and to receive treatment when almost all of them desire to return home to their families.

“I want to discuss opportunities for an improvement to Burma’s international standing – that means the release of political prisoners, open dialogue between the opposition, The Lady [Suu Kyi] and the government, and I will urge them to engage in that dialogue and to show that they are really interested in progress towards reform.”

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