For Burma Beauty Queens, ‘Carrying Coffins Is Not Easy’

By Mayt Thu Aung 22 October 2013

RANGOON — A couple of Burmese beauty queens are known for their philanthropic work with the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), a Rangoon-based organization that has provided free funeral services to more than 120,000 people in the country.

But in addition to receiving praise, pageant winners who work for the FFSS say they have been questioned for their motivations, with some critics accusing them of volunteering for the sake of popularity.

Among the organization’s volunteers is Nan Khin Zay Yar, who took home the People’s Choice and the Miss Internet awards at the Miss International beauty pageant in Japan last year. She has volunteered at FFSS twice monthly since winning the titles.

Another volunteer is Khin Wint Wah, who competed at the Miss Supranational contest this year in Belarus and won the People’s Choice and the Miss Supranational Internet awards. She said has wanted to do philanthropic work since eighth grade.

The FFSS was co-founded by famous Burmese actor Kyaw Thu and director Thu Kha, and it is led by a number of prominent people from the entertainment industry.

“I never urged them to do philanthropic work for me,” Kyaw Thu said of the two pageant winners. “They just volunteered according to their own conscience. They came to donate money and they also wanted to work with us.”

He said Nan Khin Zay Yar and Khin Wint Wah should be praised for their efforts.

“If a well-known person engages in this kind of work, they will make it more successful and it will benefit others,” said the FFSS co-founder and chairman. “To those who accuse the girls of working for their popularity, I want to ask, why did they not criticize me in a similar way after I transitioned from my career as an actor to take care of funeral services?”

In addition to the two pageant winners, a number of musicians and artists from other industries have joined the FFSS.

“It’s very good news for our philanthropic community, and I believe they will continue to work with us,” said Kyaw Thu. “As working with death is regarded as the lowest job, carrying coffins is not easy for them. They have to be brave enough to do so— that’s why I feel delighted to see them involved in this activity. I welcome whomever wants to join us.”

Nan Khin Zay Yar said she hopes that, by volunteering, she can help break superstitious beliefs about death in Burma.

“I do this job, which others see as a low form of work, because I want to get rid of superstition,” she said. “Everyone will eventually die one day, and sending off someone on his or her last journey is very noble. That’s why I became involved with the FFSS.

“I think I can offer relief to some extent to the grieving family members by carrying the coffin of their lost one. They are happy to see me carrying their beloved one’s coffin, and I am very delighted too.”

In addition to her work at the FFSS, she volunteers to care for the elderly as well as people with leprosy, HIV and cancer.

“Ma Nan Khin [Nan Khin Zay Yar] is a very kind person,” said Khin Wint Wah, the other pageant winner. “She is part of the reason I got involved with the FFSS.

“I didn’t expect to meet and work with her. I was happy when we carried a coffin side by side. Like others, ‘Miss’ winners are human beings. There shouldn’t be any distinction for who should and shouldn’t do social and philanthropic work. Everybody should do it.”

“Some people say we do this job to make ourselves popular. … I am not doing this for popularity. I am doing this because I’m interested and I want to share my joy with others. I also feel sympathetic toward others, since my day will come one day.”