Before winning the prestigious Magsaysay Award for her humanitarian work, Dr. Cynthia attended medical school and trained at several hospitals in and around Rangoon, including North Okkalapa General Hospital. In 1988, a few years after Dr. Cynthia had finished her training, North Okkalap was the site of a student demonstration 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.
As a result, chaos spread across the country, reaching the small Karen village where Dr. Cynthia worked in a private clinic. At this time, she fled across the border into Thailand, settling in Mae Sot while living 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, intending 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.