Myanmar’s ‘People’s Weatherman’ Dies
By Kyaw Phyo Tha 5 November 2019
YANGON—He was a public figure—or at least a familiar sight on TV screens—long before he became Myanmar’s favorite and most followed weatherman. His nightly appearances as a weather forecasting official from the government’s Meteorology and Hydrology Department—usually right before the evening movie was due to start—used to annoy many viewers across Myanmar. In the 1980s and 1990s, when devastating cyclones were a rarity and the country was largely ignorant of its vulnerability to climate change, a depression in the Bay of Bengal, or what the weather would be like tomorrow seemed a less pressing concern than the vintage Hollywood movie or serialized Burmese-subtitled Chinese film that viewers were waiting to see. When they heard U Tun Lwin’s signature greeting, “How’s your health?” they grumpily took a break from their TVs for a few minutes.
Fast-forward to the aftermath of deadly Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta and beyond, killing more than 130,000 people after making landfall on the night of May 2, 2008. The devastation and death toll wreaked by the tropical storm deeply moved him. His warning, issued 48 hours before Nargis made landfall, to local authorities and people living in the delta was largely ignored, as local people lacked experience with such weather; the delta hadn’t been hit by a cyclone in 132 years. There were no effective emergency-response preparations or evacuation measures in place to deal with the nearly 7-meter-high tidal surge generated by the storm.
However, the havoc had a silver lining for the meteorologist, as people began to pay more serious attention to weather forecasts than ever before. After his retirement as the director general at the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology—he worked there for 45 years—U Tun Lwin actively engaged in raising awareness about the need to adequately prepare for natural disasters. He founded Myanmar Climate Change Watch to monitor erratic weather patterns in the country. He also opened a Facebook page under his name. Old habits dying hard, he continued to post weather forecasts on a daily basis. Of course, each post began with his trademark greeting: “How’s your health?”
Apart from the daily forecast, he used social media’s outreach effectively by posting updates and warnings if there was any abrupt change in the day’s weather. When people experienced gusts of wind or were drenched by unseasonal rains, they would ask each other, “Has U Tun Lwin said something about it?” and check his page for information and possible warnings. If they were curious about whether the coming summer would be drier than the previous one, they asked him. Upcountry farmers desperate for rain called him for advice. Even beachgoers checked with him before their trips. As a result, his page has more than 1.8 million followers (beating his former department’s official page, which has more than 1.7 million).
As a meteorologist, the impact of climate change on Myanmar was U Tun Lwin’s major concern. He noted that the country has lost, since the late 1970s, about 40 days from the historic average duration of its rainy season, which used to be about 145 days from May to September. He warned that the rains would come late and leave early, and complained that deforestation and excessive logging had further disrupted monsoon patterns. On the environmental conservation front, he was never reluctant to make a contribution. He was seriously opposed to the controversial dam project slated for construction at the confluence of two rivers that gives rise to the Irrawaddy River, the country’s lifelong waterway, as he saw that any disruption to the water flow would, among other things, worsen the environmental damage already being inflicted on the country. Though his health was already in decline, he showed up at an anti-dam event in Yangon in April to deliver a strong statement, insisting, “I cannot accept any dam project on the Irrawaddy River.”
True to himself, the dedicated meteorologist, who had been adopted by the public as the people’s weatherman, continued to devote much of his time to his lifelong passion well into old age. The septuagenarian continued to busy himself checking satellite weather images and posting daily forecasts. His last weather-related post was on Oct. 18, assuring his followers there was no possibility of a cyclone or typhoon in the Bay of Bengal or the South China Sea. The next day, he announced that he would not be able to post updates for a week, as he had been hospitalized. “Get Well Soon” wishes poured in. Even on his deathbed, he murmured weather forecasts in his sleep in the way as he used to do on TV. Outside his hospital window, dark clouds rolled in and unseasonal downpours drenched Yangon. He left in the gathering darkness. No more weather updates on U Tun Lwin’s Facebook now.