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The Mae Tao Clinic has rebuffed rumours that it is planning to return to Burma, accusing the government’s peace team of spreading false information to the media after holding informal meetings with them over the past few months.
In a briefing paper released on Tuesday, the renowned Mae Sot-based clinic, which provides free healthcare to refugees and migrants, criticised the government for making “informal references” to the media leading to “widespread public misunderstanding” that they would soon relocate to the Myawaddy region of Karen state.
“We want everyone to know that the Mae Tao Clinic is not going back to Burma. Our services are still very much needed along the border as the government has a long way to go to provide adequate health care to the people of Burma, especially those in ethnic areas,” said Dr Cynthia Maung, founder of the Mae Tao Clinic.
The confusion is believed to have originated after the government’s peace team – led by Ethnic Affairs Minister Aung Min – paid two highly publicised visits to the clinic in June and August. Aung Min has since given several high-profile media interviews calling for border groups to return to Burma.
“If there is peace in Burma, there should be no reason for the groups mentioned earlier to stay in foreign countries – they should be able to return home freely and safely,” he told DVB in a candid interview last week.
“I’ve been telling NGOs at the border, there are around 30 of them there, to come back to their homeland and continue to provide help and that we are grateful for their deeds.”
But Mae Tao Clinic spokesperson Eh Thwa described their previous meetings with the government’s peace delegation as “unproductive” and urged Aung Min to approach them in a formal and structured manner in the future.
“When they came here they didn’t approach us in the official way, normally people need to send a formal letter,” she said. “But they just called and said let’s meet. This is very confusing for us. We welcome peace, but we need to do it the right way.”
Dr Cynthia further slated the government’s peace team for lacking the “relevant knowledge, experience and positions” to hold constructive discussions about the provision of healthcare in Burma.
“I hope that if the government wants to meet again, they will bring the right people so our conversations can have concrete outcomes towards improving health services along the border and inside Burma,” said Dr Cynthia, who is currently travelling to the US to accept an award from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.
Rumours of Dr Cynthia’s return have prompted serious concern within the border community, including staff of the Mae Sot general hospital, which works closely with the Mae Tao Clinic on patient referral and treatment.
Mae Tao provides life-saving healthcare to many of the 150,000 refugees estimated to be living in camps along the Thai border, as well as thousands of Burmese migrants who cross the border for treatment each year.
Other NGOs operating along the Thai-Burma border have already expressed concern about what they perceive as government pressure for them to return prematurely. The regime is currently supporting a controversial Norwegian-led initiative, the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which offers funding for border groups that are willing to operate openly in Burma.
Critics view this as an attempt to coerce rebels into joining the government under the 2008 constitution.
“Even unregistered local groups are saying that they are being pushed by the Norwegians to submit funding proposals,” Khin Ohmar from Burma Partnership told DVB, adding that it forces groups to choose between registering in Rangoon and operating openly outside the law.
“Even if some government representatives are paying lip service and saying legal registration is not necessary [for groups to participate in the MPSI], according to the law you have to be registered.”
Aung Min, who is leading the government’s peace negotiations with ethnic rebel groups, including the Karen National Union and Shan State Army, has also publicly called for refugees to begin returning home, despite concerns about the fragility of the ceasefires and the prevalence of landmines.
After meeting with the Ethnic Affairs Minister this month, the Thai government announced that it would aim to return some 120,000 Burmese refugees within a year.