[30-Year Anniversary] Meet Our Senior Staff – Naw Htoo

Naw Htoo and Mae Tao Clinic

The initial members of Mae Tao Clinic and their friends (1989)

My name is Naw Htoo and I am a social manager at Mae Tao Clinic since 2008. From 1989 to 2008, I was in charge of Reproductive Health Departments, providing maternal and child health care services and training. I have been working with Mae Tao Clinic for 30 years and I am the one of the initial members of MTC, together with Dr. Cynthia Maung.

We fled Burma in 1988 due to the political turmoil and military crackdown on students and people in Burma, many people also crossed the border to Thailand; of them the majorities were students.

When we arrived in Mae Sot, Thailand, we realised that there were great needs of immediate medical treatments amongst the refugee community. That is why we, together with 6 students from Burma, started providing health services, which turned out to become Mae Tao Clinic in 1989. At the time, we didn’t have any idea how long we would stay in Thailand. Dr Cynthia Maung and I heavily relied on and encouraged each other as we were the only women among the initial Mae Tao Clinic members. We thought that we would be able to go back to Burma in 3 to 6 months. But as time went by, we started to realise that we would not be able to foresee whether we could go back home. Clients at Mae Tao Clinic shared with us the latest news what was going on in Burma that concretized our uncertainty.

In the beginning, everything was hard for us; because we had neither a clear plan nor supporters. Moreover, we did not know until when we should be in Thailand. For the first 3 years, everything was challenging us but we tried our best for the community by providing primary health care services. And we tried to grasp any opportunities that could be of help for the community, such as providing training or referring emergency patients to the Mae Sot Hospital. Regardless of the hard work, for around 10 years, we did not have any salary; 2 meals of a day were all we had. Nevertheless, we continued putting in our utmost effort, doing whatever we could. I remember the first monthly salary we received was 200 THB, which is equivalent to US$ 6 today.

We started providing basic health care training to our team in the early 90s. We shared experiences and learned from each other. We hoped that our trained health workers could serve the community. We continuously reminded them how important their roles are. They were very selfless and altruistic. They devoted their youth to people in need of medical treatment.

Naw Htoo examining a pregnant woman as part of providing reproductive health training


Since we started providing services at the clinic, we have encountered numerous challenges. Nevertheless, our services never stopped; it was just a matter of scaling up or down the services. Chronic problems we cope with are funding and human resource issues, and political transitions in Burma. When we have funding cuts, we assess and prioritise our activities. But no matter what, we have to continue our health care, education and protection services. In case we have tight budget for medical treatment, we strengthen health education as disease prevention strategy and provide counselling.

Resignation of skilful staff is also a big challenge. As you can imagine, it takes a long time to train one health worker to reach a certain level. Some health workers resigned as they have resettled to third countries or found new jobs. To find replacement for skilled staff is a long and hard process.

The political situation in both Thailand and Burma is another variable affecting our activities. The Thai government, for instance, has tightened the border control and migrant policy. This causes an additional barrier for migrants to visit the clinic. Since the new democratic government inaugurated in Burma in 2016, numerous government humanitarian aid agencies and international NGOs moved into Burma. This led to the funding shortages amongst CBOs and NGOs along the border, hence inadvertently forced many of them to move into Burma.


I have seen many achievements we have made for 30 years; amongst them I think community empowerment is by far the biggest accomplishment. We have been training thousands of people and providing education to children. Those who finished their training and education join Mae Tao Clinic or our partner organisations and empower the next generation; one receives training or attends school and one day s/he trains new health workers or teaches at school. These circles bring about positive impact on the community and our reliance on international staff is getting less and less.

Dr Cynthia Maung and Naw Htoo at the Thai Human Rights Prize awarding ceremony (December 2018)

In addition to this, we are making a sustainable strategic plan. This leads us to be on the right path to maximise our resources to provide the best for our community. Our past activities were more like ad-hoc action to meet the urgent need for medical treatment. By setting up more strategically, our activities will converge and be in line with our value and goals for the future. Thanks to this planning, we can work towards a future backed up by our mission and beliefs. I think this is the key to why we have been able to carry out essential services for 30 years.