YANGON — As both a songwriter and a peace activist, the flower seemed to be one of Ko Ye Lwin’s favorite images. He saw artists as gardeners and their artwork as flowers. When they were forced to sell their creations for money as a last resort in order to make a living, he felt bad. He believed that the main goal of artists (and he probably included himself in this) was to tend their “flowers” and make the world beautiful. For his album — despite being a prolific songwriter, he produced only one album under his name (in fact, it also featured two of his closest musical colleagues) — he chose the title “Flower Tender’s Hand”. When he embarked on charity work for victims of war in Myanmar’s conflict zones, where ethnic armed groups have been battling the country’s army, he took the name “Flower’s Path” — suggesting a place where freedom and peace flourish.
Long before his peace activism began in 2012, Ko Ye Lwin played the bass guitar for Medium Wave, the influential Myanmar classic rock band he co-founded with his fellow musicians in the early 1980s. They chose the name, he recalled, to reflect the band’s musical identity — neither recognizably Asian nor Western. No one who has heard the band’s music can deny that the name fits. Lyrically, along with his famous fellow songwriters Ko Ne Win and the late Ko Maung Maung, he co-wrote many beloved songs with themes based on love, endurance and philosophy. Under Socialist Myanmar, their contribution to the modern music scene was so unique and innovative that no discussion of the country’s music industry is complete without it.
Hailing from a provincial town in Bago Region, Ko Ye Lwin grew up in a musical, Christian family. With shoulder-length hair and a silvery beard that hung down to his chest, he bore a striking resemblance to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top when he was on stage — especially in his cowboy hat and sunglasses. Beneath his soft-spoken, kind manner lay the heart of a true revolutionary. This side of him emerged during the 2007 Saffron Revolution when Buddhist monks took to the streets to defy the then-ruling military government. Ko Ye Lwin joined the nonviolent protests, reciting verses from the Metta (loving kindness) Sutta. When the protest was crushed, he was arrested and detained for months. As a punishment, the then government refused to allow his name to appear in public, even on album jackets.
He took to peace activism with a group of young musicians, launching weekly fundraising gigs held at many of Yangon’s ubiquitous teashops in 2012. Under the motto “People helping people,” Flower’s Path was initially formed to help the tens of thousands of civilians victimized by the raging war between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northernmost Myanmar. Apart from the peace fundraising activities, he and his team campaigned for the National League for Democracy prior to 2015’s general election by traveling around the country, putting into action his belief that everyone has an obligation to push for change. “It won’t happen if we just wait for it,” he said. His involvement in the campaigns — which kept him traveling around the country despite his advancing age — earned him the respect of NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who affectionately referred to him as “Saya Gyi” (Master).
While the political change he longed for materialized with the NLD’s electoral victory, he was no doubt disappointed with the fact that the civil war has continued under the new administration. Given his peaceful nature, and the fact that he had witnessed the hardship experienced by IDPs in the camps, ending conflict was a preoccupation for him. According to those supporters who were nursing him in his ill health, he asked for updates on the country’s peace process even on his deathbed. Ko Ye Lwin passed away on Tuesday — coincidentally, on the eve of the Union Peace Conference, which brings the government, military and representatives of the ethnic armed groups together in a search for peace…for the third time.