Sydney Peace Prize Awards

(8pm, Thursday 7 November 2013, MacLaurin Hall, University of Sydney)

The City of Sydney is proud to support the Sydney Peace Prize and the work of the Sydney Peace Foundation. Both reflect the values we want our City to represent - open, diverse, and accepting, a City which welcomes the world and which supports justice - especially for the marginalised and powerless.

We recognise, too, that harmonious communities, and a peaceful world, can only be achieved through justice. In a country that likes to pride itself on "a fair go", we need a regular reality check on just how fair a go we give, say, to refugees arriving by boat, or to Aboriginal people in remote communities. Or, for that matter, to marginalised people here in Sydney.

We need to ask ourselves whether, as a wealthy nation, we are providing just and reasonable levels of foreign aid for those at risk and living in need in other parts of this world that all we share?

Each year, the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize reminds us of our fundamental obligations to our fellows, whether here at home or elsewhere on our troubled planet.

The recipient of the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize shows how much can be achieved, even when resources are scant, if the will and determination is there.

Dr Cynthia Maung was herself a Karen political refugee, branded an insurgent and terrorist by the military junta during Burma's 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Fleeing for her own safety, she arrived, like many of her compatriots, at the Thai-Burmese border. There, she came face-to-face with the plight of her fellow-refugees in the border camps. Where others might have cast themselves among those to be cared for, Dr Maung went to work.

Armed only with a stethoscope, a thermometer and two pairs of forceps, she set up the Mae Tao Clinic. It was initially housed in a ramshackle building with a dirt floor, where a rice-cooker was used as a make-shift steriliser.

Over the last almost 25 years, she and her colleagues have treated people with malaria, or with respiratory diseases, people with HIV/AIDS and people with gunshot wounds or horrific land-mine injuries.

They have provided antenatal care, abortion treatment and the safe delivery last year of over 3,000 babies.

Their work extends to mental health services for the traumatised, and altogether, their services care for an astonishing 150,000 patients a year - refugees, migrant workers, orphans and other vulnerable people, irrespective of their ability to pay.

They also feed as many as 500 people twice each day.

If that is not enough, Dr Maung also cares for her own two children, two abandoned babies, an abused teenager and a widow in the shelter of her own family.

Her generosity and compassion are seemingly without bounds.

She is a beacon of hope to so many vulnerable people and for those of us living in the security and comfort of this country, a reminder of what humanity means.

As our political leaders vied in a shameful bidding war to see how harsh this country could be in our treatment of refugees, that reminder is both timely and necessary.

Now when even our language is being suborned to such an extent that refugees become "irregular maritime arrivals" (to the previous government), and now "illegals" whose plight is shrouded in silence by the present government, now we need champions of truth and humanity more than ever.

Dr Maung's work has not only helped hundreds of thousands of people; it has almost certainly inspired many more.

Her skills, her selflessness and commitment could be drawn on to influence social policy, not only in the traumatised border lands but in our own towns and cities where there are also vulnerable and needy people who should be brought into our community.

Dr Maung's talk at Town Hall last night - aptly titled Health, Healing and Dignity for the Dispossessed - showed us the way.

The Sydney Peace Prize is founded on the notion that peace walks hand-in-hand with justice and Dr Maung's work as well as her words are testimony to that.

I am honoured therefore to present the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize to Dr Cynthia Maung.