FFSS’s Kyaw Thu Reflects on a Life of Healing the Living and Burying the Dead

By Zarni Mann 1 June 2013

After providing free funeral services to more than 120,000 of Burma’s deceased, the founder of Rangoon’s Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), Kyaw Thu, says he is no longer afraid to face his own mortality.

The renowned former actor, now in his 50s, told The Irrawaddy that having once feared the prospect of hell, today he is ready for anything after more than a decade of personal sacrifice and fruitful service.

“After witnessing and experiencing many happenings in life, I’ve come to understand more about the value of life. Whether you are rich or poor, famous or infamous, you will have to walk this way without your attachments, your wealth and your popularity. All that you can bring along is good merits,” Kyaw Thu says.

Founded in 2001, the FFSS these days not only offers funeral services free of charge, but also provides a free health care clinic to those in need. The organization has inspired many and has encouraged an interest in charity work among young people.

The former Myanmar Academy Award-winning actor says the seeds of compassion that brought about his social work were planted after 10 years of fame on screen, as he reflected on a life of accomplishment that he felt was lacking.

“During one summer holiday at a Buddhist literature camp, my daughter asked Aung San Sayardaw where actors and actresses would go after they died, heaven or hell? To which Sayardaw answered that they would go to hell, and I was terrified. Sayardaw explained that we, actors and actresses, make people cry, angry and laugh, which are misdeeds,” he recalls.

Inspired by a charity group from Mandalay named Bhramaso, which offered free funeral services to the poor, Kyaw Thu’s wife Myint Myint Khin Pe wanted to establish a similar charitable endeavor in Rangoon.

Meanwhile, the prominent Burmese film director Thu Kha would find similar inspiration after he was hospitalized due to illness. Upon being discharged from the hospital, Thu Kha felt called to action after witnessing the many poor who had lost loved ones but could not afford the funeral charges. In many of these cases, the bereaved abandoned their dead family members, whose bodies were later disposed of in mass cremations.

Moved by the situation, Thu Kha consulted with Kyaw Thu and the pair established a funeral service together in Rangoon.

The FFSS has been winning over the hearts of people ever since, but not everyone has been impressed.

In September 2007, Kyaw Thu was barred from his beloved film industry because he and fellow entertainer Zarganar offered alms to the Buddhist monks who had taken to the streets of Rangoon in protest of the military regime.

“I was angry at first. But when I look back, I have to thank them for banning me from filming because, from that, I got more time to serve at FFSS,” he says.

As FFSS celebrates its 12th year, with about 400 volunteers and 100 staff in tow, Kyaw Thu is no longer just a provider of funerals. People now call on his organization for free ambulance services, health care and education. Others are simply seeking potable water.

The organization’s free health care unit receives hundreds of patients from near and far every day. Physicians, eye specialists and many other doctors volunteer at FFSS.

Moreover, a library named after the late director Thu Kha, and free education services covering tuition for matriculating students and offering basic training in IT and the hospitality industry, are all aimed at enriching Burma’s younger generations.

“There are two sisters, whose parents are very poor and couldn’t give them further education, who came to us and attended the hospitality training. They passed the class with flying colors and are now working at an international hotel abroad,” Kyaw Thu says proudly.

And when the country has suffered severe drought over the last few years, Kyaw Thu’s FFSS launched another initiative digging wells in drought-hit areas and distributing clean water to the areas in Rangoon, all at no cost to the beneficiaries.

Despite the country’s widely lauded transition to democracy, government scrutiny of the organization persists, at times preventing some of FFSS’s charitable works.

In one recent example, the organization sought to pick up trash littering Rangoon’s streets and in the process educate residents about the environmental virtues of proper garbage disposal. That plan was prohibited by the city’s Municipal Committee.

“If people are gathering and doing something, the authorities still think that they might do bad things that will defame the government. To pick up trash in the city is not with the goal of condemning the Municipal Committee but just to tell the people to keep the city clean,” Kyaw Thu says.

“We are not political parties, nor will we carry out the political agitation that they are afraid of. We are just giving services to people in need. If we can’t do these small little activities, how can the other social groups join hands with the government in the transition of the country?” he asks.

Having dedicated much of his life to serving FFSS, Kyaw Thu admits that it has been at the expense of his family life.

“When I’m engaged with FFSS, I become a full-time social worker. I can’t even go back home but stay instead at the FFSS office. I’m grateful that I have an understanding wife and children who support me and encourage me always,” he says.

Despite the sacrifices made by Kyaw Thu, he says the words of his wife have helped him soldier on.

“She proudly told the children: ‘We no longer own your father. Before, your father belonged to his fans, but now, he belongs to the people.’ I was sad but later satisfied knowing my wife and children are very proud of my dedication to society,” he says.

“Some people have said that I must not die, for I’m essential and important to society. I do not believe that. If I die, there will always be someone who will take up these duties. I believe many clones of Kyaw Thu will be born. I’m not essential. I’m just a human being like you.”