Myanmar’s premier esteemed actor KYAW THU entertained his national audience with his lauded filmography. Using his celebrity status, he smashed the stigma of funeral services; thus, delighting Myanmar throughout their lives and aiding them in their deaths.
As an amateur photographer, painter, and later, movie actor and director, Kyaw Thu had depicted life in one of the world’s most isolated countries, his native Myanmar. After two decades of moviemaking he shifted his focus to death.
He co-founded with a colleague the Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS), enabling poor families to give their deceased a proper funeral. The rituals are prescribed by tradition in the predominantly Buddhist nation but are too costly for the majority of the population, a third of whom the World Bank estimates to be living below the poverty line. Cremation alone can cost more than 35,000 kyat (about P1,270), or about 10 times the daily wage of a construction worker.
Operating on the organizers’ personal funds and donations, FFSS shoulders everything from caskets to hearses, mortuary facilities, burial, cremation, funeral coordinators. Hundreds of volunteers assist a modest-size staff.
The former movie star himself plays various roles, as pallbearer, hearse driver, and coordinator, fielding requests for assistance from the office in Yangon, where he sometimes spends the night on busy days. Being a celebrity, he is also the society’s most effective fundraiser. To grateful beneficiaries he is a savior.
A devout Buddhist, he says he wants to make sure that the deceased’s final journey into the next life is smooth and trouble-free. Buddhists believe that it is important for a person to be in a positive and peaceful state of mind at the time of death. The rituals last for seven days, from the bathing and dressing of the body in fine clothes to the wake, usually held in a temporary pavilion put up in front of the family’s house; and the chanting of sutras by monks; and finally cremation or burial.
Among families who cannot afford the expense, it is not uncommon to bury the corpse in secret in the dead of night, or, if their kin died in hospital, abandon the body there.
Since its establishment in January 2001, FFSS has undertaken 150,000 funeral services, at a rate of up 50 a day, using 18 hearses and two boats.
It has since extended its charitable work to the living, through a charity clinic opened in 2007 and later, a school and a library; as well as humanitarian assistance to refugees and victims of war and natural disasters.
Kyaw Thu’s motivation stems from two levels.
The FFSS provides basic social services which the government is incapable of delivering. Like other civil society groups, it emerged during the 49-year rule of a military junta, which was marked by gross human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.
On a personal level, it was the fear of the afterlife that steered Kyaw Thu toward the charitable path.
In a book he launched in 2013, he recounts the moment when he contemplated his possible contribution to society beyond film entertainment.
His daughter, who used to go to a meditation center, once had a conversation with the sayadaw (senior monk or influential teacher of Buddhism), which gave Kyaw Thu quite a jolt. She asked him where actors go after they die. To hell, the sayadaw replied, because they make people cry and feel strong emotions like anger, which was a misdeed.
“I was shocked,” Kyaw Thu said. He conceded, though, that despite his acting and directing success, he felt something was still lacking.
It so happened that a good friend and colleague of his, writer-director Thu Kha, fell ill and was hospitalized. While looking after him, Kyaw Thu heard about a patient, an old woman, whom the doctors had discharged but was left in the hospital by her family because they could not afford to care for her at home and cremate her when she died.
Thu Kha suggested that they set up a foundation that would offer free funeral service for the poor. It turned out that Kyaw Thu’s wife had wanted to do the same, inspired by an aunt’s
work with a similar organization in Mandalay.
From the time FFSS was set up, Kyaw Thu immersed himself in humanitarian and philanthropic work, as though his very life depended on it. In a way, it did.
“After witnessing and experiencing many happenings in my life, I have come to know more about the value of life,” he said in an interview with The Irrawaddy newspaper. “Whether you are rich or poor, famous or infamous, you will have to walk…without your attachments, your wealth and your popularity. All that you can bring along is your good merits.”
The FFSS has helped pay medical fees for poor communities in Yangon. Its free clinic, named in honor of co-founder Thu Kha, provides basic medical care and a range of treatments and services including dental, orthopedic, pediatric, obstetric, blood transfusions and eye surgeries as well as 24-hour emergency response.
Its school offers free vocational training courses, children’s classes, refresher classes for academic qualification exams, basic training in IT and the hospitality industry.
The humanitarian and philanthropist is also an activist. Kyaw Thu goes around the country giving talks about volunteering and doing good, inspiring similar organizations and self-help groups. His motivates the community to get involved.
In the aftermath of a 2008 cyclone, which claimed 130,000 lives, FFSS was active in rescue and relief operations. During one severe summer, its volunteers provided some 70,000 gallons of water, installed water pipes and tube wells and water tanks in 26 villages to ease the water shortage.
Volunteers have also tried to educate people on environmental protection through proper garbage disposal, going around Yangon clearing the streets of litter. The activity once roused the suspicion of the municipal officials who deemed it an indictment of the administration.
“But we just want to tell the people to keep the city clean,” Kyaw Thu had said, disputing officials’ suspicions that they were out to agitate the public.
During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, Kyaw Thu, his wife, and FFSS volunteers gave food and alms to the Buddhist monks who led the peaceful protests against the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidy, resulting in skyrocketing prices.
Kyaw Thu and his wife were arrested and detained for seven days, and Kyaw Thu was banned from making movies.
Instead of being discouraged, however, he welcomed the opportunity to “spend more time on humanitarian work.” He became virtually a fulltime social worker, often at the expense of his family who, thankfully, gave him unconditional support. His wife once proudly told their children: “We no longer own your father…he belongs to the people.”
In 2011 military rule ended with the first general elections held in 20 years. A civilian government was installed, led by President Thein Sein, who had served as general and prime minister in the former junta.
The transition, however, has been painstakingly slow. Public services remain inadequate and erratic; and the poor are as vulnerable as before.
Kyaw Thu has commented that the government is out of touch with reality; the same with foreign investors who “talk only to politicians.” At the same time, he urges people to change their attitudes and match their words with action instead of merely paying lip service to the advocacy of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
His daily encounters with the poor are rich in lessons which public officials can learn from. They are documented in his book, which consists largely of his Facebook posts about his experiences and the sentiments of the people he and his team serve. A publisher who had been following his posts offered to print a compilation.
The book (now in its third printing) is titled Kyan Taw Thar Tamada (If I Were President) and reads like a proposed plan of action for social reform. Kyaw Thu, however, insisted that he was not interested in politics.
Instead he is returning to his true love—film. Initially, he was to direct a film about the work of FFSS volunteers and staff and the ordinary people whose lives they touch.
“I want to film real-life stories and real incidents that can educate…the audience,” said the award-winning actor-director in a 2013 interview with the Myanmar Times. A regular FFSS donor had offered 15 million kyat (roughly half-a-million pesos) for the project, and his actor friends had offered to appear in the movie for free.
It is unclear if the project took off. However, in March this year, The Irrawaddy reported that Kyaw Thu was to appear in a movie – as a character he is all too familiar with, an undertaker.
The film is an adaptation of a 1980s Burmese detective novel and titled “Professor Dr. Sate Phwar.” He said he accepted the role not only because the character interested him but also “to show the younger generation who I am.”
Kyaw Thu, 56, a physics major at the University of Yangon, started acting in movies in his mid-20s, influenced by his father, who owned a movie company. He appeared in 200 movies and directed six others, becoming so popular that the military government tapped him for propaganda films. At some point, however, he felt that doing the government’s bidding bothered his conscience, and devoted himself instead to social work.
After years of dealing with death as FFSS leader, he said he no longer feared his own mortality.
Working on the new film is not unlike coming full circle, and not only because Kyaw Thu is playing a character who personifies his humanitarian work. The film, his first in eight years, depicts the same reality as Burma’s first film, made in the 1910s: death. It was a silent recording of a funeral — that of Tun Shein, a prominent politician who campaigned for Burmese independence in London.