Left Behind, Elderly Find an Advocate in Burma

By Yen Saning 31 May 2014

RANGOON — Burmese philanthropist Than Myint Aung has carried hundreds of coffins since co-founding the Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS). But more recently, she has focused on assisting another group of people: those who are left behind after their loved ones pass away.

In 2001, Than Myint Aung, now 60 years old, co-founded the FFSS along with ex-actor Kyaw Thu, the late writer Thu Kha and philanthropist Myint Myint Khin Pe. The Rangoon-based nonprofit organization offers free funerals for families who cannot afford to pay for services.

As part of her job with the FFSS, Than Myint Aung would visit the homes of families after deaths were reported. In many cases, she found something that troubled her: elderly family members who had been dependent upon the deceased prior to his or her passing. Without a caretaker, she says, many were left to struggle on their own.

“They were just waiting for their own day to die,” she says, adding that some neighbors and relatives even asked her to “abandon” the elderly relatives along with the corpses.

“There was an 80-year-old woman who had suffered from a stroke, and her 50-year-old son had been taking care of her. The son was the one who died, and she was left alone, with flies around her body as she wet herself,” the philanthropist recalls.

After seeing many similar cases, in 2010 she decided to found the Twilight Villa (See Zar Yeik), a home for the elderly in Rangoon. The home cares for about 70 people who are suffering and on the verge of death, with about 50 others still on the waiting list.

“There are emergency cases, including a 95-year-old woman who was living in the shed of someone’s home. We needed to bring her here,” she says, adding that a second home for the elderly is currently being constructed.

She says she received her philanthropic gene from her mother, who “was very helpful to others.” From her father she inherited a love of reading, which she says prompted her to become a writer, and an award-winning one at that, after taking home Burma’s National Literature Award in 2002.

As a child she read books that motivated her to work for the benefit of her people. “Burmese creative literature makes the mind gentle and full of sympathy,” she says. “For example, take this line from a novel by the writer Khin Hnin Yu: ‘What distinguishes humans from animals is their selflessness and sacrifice for the public good.’”

In addition to her work with the FFSS and the elderly, Than Myint Aung founded a private school in Rangoon that offers free education through high school, and she co-founded an orphanage for children with HIV, also in Rangoon. The orphanage, Thukha Yeik Myone, has cared for 116 children since its establishment in 2005, with an emphasis on providing regular health care. Last year, a second orphanage for children with HIV opened in Mandalay.

“I try to alleviate social problems when I can, supporting projects that others have already started. If a service does not exist, I cooperate with friends and donors who are like-minded to help,” she says.

After a doctor offered his own home to her as a residence, she turned it into a foundation that teaches youths about capacity building and philanthropic work.

“She is honest, optimistic and a role model in philanthropic work,” Tun Lwin, a famous meteorologist and a board member of her youth philanthropy foundation, told The Irrawaddy.

She also founded a blood donor group in Malaysia. “I want every youth to save lives with clean blood. I want to see every youth become a blood donor when they turn 18,” she says.

Than Myint Aung has received several literary and humanitarian awards. Most recently, she was awarded with US$10,000 from the Citizen of Burma Award Organization, based in the United States. She says she plans to invest the money into her charity work.