The Irrawaddy

From Star of the Screen to Carrying Coffins

Kyaw Thu (b. 1959) has acted in more than two hundred films and won two Burmese Oscars. Retired from acting, he is now Myanmar’s most famous philanthropist, the founder of the Yangon Free Funeral Service. He seems to live inside his office, a cluttered place full of photos and awards from his screen idol days, which is constantly full of visitors coming to offer donations and have their picture taken with him.

Tell me about your life.

My parents were in the film industry, and I became a successful actor. I acted in a lot of films. The government asked me to star in several propaganda films. And then one was a film about students taking up arms and fighting against the military government – this was after the failed student protests of 1988. I didn’t want to do it, so I refused. That didn’t help my career, but I still was able to keep making films.

Then one day, during a summer holiday at a Buddhist literature camp, my children asked a prominent monk whether actors went to heaven or hell when they died. The monk said they go to hell. He explained that actors make people cry, they make people angry, make them laugh, all of which are misdeeds. I was terrified. This led me on to the road to participate in social obligations and worthy meritorious deeds.

 How did you set up the Free Funeral Service?

My director Sayar U Thuka started it. In 2000, he was sick and in the hospital. An old woman lay beside him in his hospital room. She was sick too. Her family members visited her and took care of her every day. One day the doctor told them they should take their grandmother home because there was nothing else he could for them. Instead of taking her home, the family stopped coming to the hospital. The woman died alone, and was buried in a common grave. Sayar U Thuka was shocked. He found the family; they confessed they had abandoned their grandmother because they did not have money to pay for her funeral. That is why he decided to set up the free funeral service society – to help people without discrimination on race, religion or class. We collaborated with him, and have buried over 160 000 people – on average forty per day – since 2001.

Why are funerals unaffordable in Myanmar?

Most people are desperately poor in this country – Myanmar is the poorest country in South East Asia. Traditional funeral costs are on average about $7500 (according to a 2014 survey), and that does not include cemetery costs in Yangon, which will easily cost around another $2000. So a typical funeral and burial costs run to at least $9000. And undertakers expect to be paid in full at the time of the funeral. That is impossibly unaffordable for many people.

You encountered many difficulties in your work.

Most people in Myanmar are extremely superstitious about funerals. Authorities do not allow hearses to drive through some neighborhoods, and some streets are even marked by signs saying, “No hearses allowed.”

My show-business friends were initially shocked that I carried coffins at funerals – this is a task often shunned by the superstitious. Some even started to refuse to co-star with me in films because they believed that my work with the dead would bring them bad luck. With time this has now changed, and we have many donors from all over the country.

We have expanded our philanthropy beyond funerals, we now run an emergency rescue team and ambulance service – there are almost no ambulances in Yangon. We run a free healthcare clinic that treats more than two hundred patients a day. We have set up a library and free educational and vocational training school. We set up a camp for leadership training and capacity building. We have a meditation center. And we are also working on a pilot project for garbage disposal in our neighborhood.

We encountered a lot of resistance from the past military government. They ordered our head office closed during our rescue efforts in the aftermath of the May 2008 Nargis Cyclone, which devastated Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta. They forced us to move to an abandoned garbage dump. During last year’s student protests – we were providing emergency medical care – the police smashed one of our ambulances as they were arresting students. Why would anyone do that?

The past military government also banned you from acting.

During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, we donated food and water to the protesting monks. This was our responsibility as Buddhists. We were briefly arrested, and I was banned from acting and my films were prohibited from the cinemas.

I was angry, but had the opportunity to do more social work. So I was happy for that. An actor does his work just for himself, for his own fame and for money. All for his own ego. In social work, we do work for the public. Meritorious deeds. My acting ban was lifted in 2015, but I do very little acting now. I am so busy with philanthropy.

I love what I am doing. I have a better understanding of life’s value now. And I am not afraid of dying.

We all are on the path to death. Whether you are rich or poor, famous or not, you will have to walk the same path leaving your wealth and popularity behind. Death is our inescapable destination. Once we die, we leave nothing behind except our good deeds. So we should do as many good deeds as we can while we are still breathing.

And you are an amateur poet.

Yes, I write a poem from time to time, though I am by no means a professional. It is part of our culture. It is how we are able to give expression to our feelings. As a charity worker and artist, I try to reach the heart of our community with poetry.

Why is poetry so important in Burmese culture?

Sixty years ago in Myanmar, all progress in economic, health and social matters was blocked by the military government. They shut the door on society.  Many Burmese found a way to open this door through painting, literature, music and poetry.  Culture was an effective outlet, and poetry was the main tool to open this door.

Authors’ Note: These interviews are excerpted from Burma Storybook, a poetry and photography book inspired by the documentary film of the same name, produced by Corinne van Egeraat and directed by Petr Lom. 

The English language hardcover edition of the book is for sale at Hla Day, Innwa Bookstore, Myanmar Book Center and the Strand Hotel. A Burmese language-only paperback edition of the book is for sale through Yangon Book Plaza.

From Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, you can visit the Burma Storybook Photo Exhibit at the Tourism Burma Building.

For more information: www.burmastorybook.com