Burmese fleeing to seek care of doctors

MAE SOT, Thailand — They travel for days though checkpoints, across dangerous roads and past Myanmar’s bribe-hungry soldiers to make it to the Thai border. They’re not refugees fleeing the junta — they simply want to see a doctor.

Myanmar has one of the world’s worst health care systems. Tens of thousands die each year from malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, dysentery, diarrhea and other illnesses.

While there are hospitals in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma, only a few can afford to pay hospital workers the various “fees” in the tightly controlled nation fueled by corruption.

“Even if you use the toilet in the hospital you have to pay money,” said a 70-year-old man from Phyu Township, who journeyed two days by bus to see a doctor in Mae Sot and have a cataract removed. He declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.

Last year, more than 100,000 Burmese sought help at the 120-bed Mae Tao Clinic in Thailand, where free care is offered through local and international funding and no one is turned away.

The French arm of Doctors Without Borders left Myanmar last year and even the International Red Cross issued a rare public criticism in June, denouncing the government for forcing prisoners to serve as military porters among other human rights abuses.

“People who have no money go to a clinic and they cannot get care,” said Chit Win, of the Back Pack Health Worker Team, a group that sneaks medical supplies into Myanmar. “Most people say the best thing to do is just wait to die.”

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