When ascending lead actor, Kyaw Thu, cleared up at the 1994 Myanmar Academy Awards with his film Miss Shwe Hta, The Foreigner, he would not have been able to predict the future that was to come. A rebel by by nature, raised in the studios of the old regime where his father called the shots, the young man would obsess about film, learning from stars like U Nyunt Win, U Kyaw Hein, and College Jin Nay Win, and watching all he could at a time when pirate VHS tapes were revolutionary and the country was, by all accounts, not entirely accepting of things deemed subversive.
But Kyaw Thu had a hot streak: he was always ready to shake things up. It is no surprise that he idolised the original American angry young men – first Brando, then James Dean, – dressing up like his heroes and imitating the brash, handsome iconoclasts to hone their insouciant charm and charisma. His swagger, his cool, and his polished good looks meant he was sure to succeed and, by the mid-90s, U Kyaw Thu was the biggest draw in Myanmar cinema.
After being unexpectedly asked by legendary director U Myo Myint Aung to star in his first movie (Chit Kyoe Lay Nha Myhin, or Two Threads of Love) whilst still a newly married physics graduate in 1981, Kyaw Thu’s star had risen meteorically. Women gushed over his performances, men hailed him. Despite this, with a body of work swelling into the hundreds, Kyaw Thu was consistently overlooked by the critics: until 1994 the actor had refused to collaborate in any work which he considered ‘propaganda.’ The government backed, Miss Shwe Hta, deemed by many as inferior to much of his previous oeuvre, was his concession – a victorious blip on his resume, and a career direction which he was as quick to abandon as he was to initiate. Although further success followed – in 2003 he won the Academy’s “Best Director” gong for Amay Noe Boe, – Kyaw Thu was always uncomfortable playing the role of sycophant and, by the mid 2000s, things were changing fast in Myanmar.
In 2001, Kyaw Thu began a process of reinvention which has seen him become one of Yangon’s leading humanitarians. The organization of which he is president and patron is named the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), a charity so famous that we simply say “Kyaw Thu’s office” to our taxi driver and he embarks on the hour long drive to North Dagon, the edge of town.
It is a large operation with over 500 staff – the majority of whom are dedicated volunteers, – many wearing the actor’s distinctive bearded, pony-tailed portrait on their t-shirts. From the start, it is clear that there is a strong cult of affection towards the eminence gris of Myanmar’s silver screen turned victor of the less fortunate.
We enter, past a life-size waxwork of the philanthropist, into FFSS’s reception. After a long hiatus, we are ushered into Kyaw Thu’s personal office: modest, but abounding with the mementoes of a life spent amongst the great and good of Myanmar society. Fabulously quirky painting cover the walls, interspersed with edgy film posters and an imposing canvas photo of the man handsomely gripping his 1994 award haul. Arty portraits with friends and lover, Shwe Zee Kwet, cover his desks, hinting at a life well spent. I point at one: “Your work?” (Kyaw Thu is also a noted artist, his censored paintings having previously been exhibited in New York). “No – these are all by friends,” he smiles, charmingly. Then, indicating a discreet, delicate landscape that I mistake for an ethereal example of Chinese brushwork, he notes: “By Aung San Suu Kyi.”
In-fitting with his on-screen persona, Kyaw Thu has always lived a life of conviction. A free-spirited, hard-drinking drug user in the past, he has never been afraid to question authority. I ask about a lengthy, conspicuous tattoo in Thai script covering his lower left forearm. In response, he strips topless, revealing the same message inscribed in four different languages across his entire body. It is a poem, penned by himself:
“Walk your own path, Do your own duty, Fulfill your own obligations, Be guided by your own virtue, Write your own history… That’s all!”
It is perhaps this headstrong attitude that saw him thrown into prison during the 2007 sangha protests, for offering alms to the monks. Despite being detained for only seven days, his actions saw him banned from creating new material, and also placed a public prohibition on the airing of his works. Kyaw Thu was out in the cold – unable even to visit his children overseas – and this judgement was to hold until Thein Sein’s regime loosened the injunction in 2012.
But a life of conviction reveals itself in many forms. Charity, and the belief in care and respect for the misfortunate, is a common road taken by activists and celebrities the world over. As an outcast, Kyaw Thu threw himself into humanitarian work.
Revered amongst most of Myanmar’s citizens for it’s unsurpassed deeds in aiding families to pay their final respects with dignity, FFSS has been arranging last rites for those of limited means since 2001, a pivotal social function in a country where proscribed funereal rites are too costly for the majority of the population. Donations flow in from a number of sources; foremost amongst these being fellow actors, artists, and patrons within the Myanmar diaspora. Remarkably, FFSS has to date provided burials for near on 200,000 people.
“In the year 2000, funeral costs were so high that in some regions people were secretly burying bodies in fields, farms, and forests.” Kyaw Thu recalls. “When the owner discovered this, the bodies would be disinterred and the farmer himself would have to face the repercussions.”
Kyaw Thu co-founded the organization with another hero of the arts scene, the accomplished late author, musician, and director, U Thu Kha. Since it’s inception it has been a central tenet of FFSS that burials are offered to all, irregardless of race, religion, and ethnicity.
“Baba U Thu Kha spent a period of time in hospital. In the bed alongside him was a seriously ill woman. One day, her family were informed that there was no longer anything the hospital could do for her. She was discharged. And, then, something unusual happened: her family purposefully stopped associating with her until her death a week or so later. U Thu Kha chased down the family to discover the reason behind this cruelty. The answer: ‘We are a poor family, and we cannot afford to cover the cost of our mother’s funeral. We have no choice, our hearts are broken, but we cannot be burdened with this cost.’”
Since then, FFSS has shouldered the cost of all aspects of the burial ceremony, and, in the case of shouldering coffins, Kyaw Thu has been known to take the job extremely literally, dispelling social stigma by occasionally acting as pallbearer and driving the hearses of the deceased. “Sometimes, when family members see me holding the coffin, they’d be so happy they’d momentarily forget their sorrow! They’d come for autographs and offer me food! I’d say: ‘let’s get the cremation out of the way first… then let’s get together!’” Although there are no FFSS branches elsewhere in Myanmar, Kyaw Thu believes that in this way he has set the example for the numerous national organisations which now mimic the good work which he began.
FFSS also operates a mobile clinic service, named in honour of U Thu Kha, which provides vital, free medical assistance to over 200 people each day via a staff of over fifty volunteer doctors. Further operations have sprouted in Pyay, Pegu, and Kyobingauk. “When we started FFSS, we saw a lot of death. On average, we would see thirty to forty corpses per day,” he exclaims. “Looking into the causes, we found that medication was too costly and we decided to act on this.” The clinic provides not only primary healthcare, but serves as a hospital for the treatment of many other major afflictions. More recently, the clinic has opened an optometric unit and a clinic for kidney patients.
“We see the root cause of all this illness as low education levels and a general lack of understanding of wellness.” As such, education has become a key priority of FFSS: the organisation provides classes for matriculating students, runs summer schools which teach children basic courtesy, grammar and ethics, and offers vocational training in areas such as hospitality, business, and teacher training.
Providing ad-hoc humanitarian aid has not been a straightforward process, however. “When we began, the only suitable place to perform such services was from a monastery. We became successful, and word got around. The former junta heard about our work and, almost overnight, eviction attempts began. Eventually we were kicked out and we moved to where we are now, in North Dagon, on the outskirts of town, on land which was the unofficial municipal dump. But relations remained tense, even so.”
The organisation also arranges disaster relief, filling gaps in official provision to help victims of fire and flooding. And, in this area, hurdles are also common. Speaking of FFSS’s work in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the Pakokku flooding, he recalls: “We entered the region to provide relief. As soon as we attempted to charter boats, the former junta prohibited the hire company from leasing. We tried extremely hard to carry on with our mission, despite all the odds. We collected many dead bodies over those days, to cremate. Once the immediate disaster had receded, the rehabilitation processes began.
Our organisation participated in agricultural efforts by providing wells, machinery, manpower and inputs, and also aided with the construction of new schools. Everything was gone. We tried to provide all we could; from food, shelter and clothing onwards. We couldn’t do as much as we wanted, even though we had the cash and the tools. There was so much bureaucracy – the junta found every way possible to put up roadblocks.”
When asked about the current situation, and the hurdles to performing his charity work, he is positive: “Things have improved, but I still get hassled outside of Yangon – when I cross borders, or visit Bagan – the security forces question me incessantly, asking for all the details of my transport. I have no idea why they still do this, but I don’t question back. I am not a politician and I have absolutely no plans to be. It’s the reality, it’s an irritation, but it is what it is.”
A man with firm Buddhist faith, Kyaw Thu feels that only now can he finally leave his dichotomous past behind: no more flitting between work as a poster boy for a regime which he was, at the same time, frequently rallying against. The FFSS and a selfless devotion to humanitarian work now dictate his entire life, a point he reiterates obsessively.
When asked, with Myanmar’s tense current climate in mind, what he now thinks of FFSS’s policy of inclusion, he conclusively replies:
“We help anyone regardless of ethnicity or race, whether poor or rich, friend or enemy: that is what being a public servant is – it is altruism.
Humans should be treated as humans, we must have sympathy towards all, that’s my attitude. If someone is denied because of their religion, that is not the true meaning of charity. This is what our Lord Buddha taught us: it’s the Four Sublime States, sympathy towards other humans, the core of my belief! As Bogyoke Aung San said: ‘If a country lacks the Four Sublime States, that country will face many disasters.’ If we look at it in this context, we are facing these disasters now. Natural depletion – which also affects the minds of people, – sickness, floods, greed, fires, racial conflict: these are the disasters we now face. They happen because we are lacking loving kindness. If everyone developed sympathy and loving kindness our country, maybe even the whole world, would be better and safer.”
The majority of Kyaw Thu’s cinemagraphic output since 2012 has been consonant with the goals of his social work. He is settling into a life of humanitarian selflessness, working on selective shows, and espousing his philosophy by publishing collections of his Facebook posts.
“At this stage, I just want to pass my life peacefully. I want to meditate and achieve a state of inner peace. However, I still have many attachments that I cannot get over. For example, my charity work is something I must do. Regarding art, I believe my work should benefit the public in this same mindset. I now have many movies to shoot – I am scheduling the timetable – and have committed to act in and direct the TV adaptation of Bagan Myo Thu (Bagan Girl), and that is where you will see me at the moment. However, it is my wish purely to put out work that is beneficial to the public.”
Asked what he gets from his work, he provides a stern final outburst: “I will keep on running FFSS until my last breath, for the sake of everyone who benefits. I receive no financial gain whatsoever. I will not get involved in politics, I have no interest at all. I just want to ease the pain of our cities and our people. I don’t want power, but I will push on with charity work whatever happens – even if I am incapacitated, even if it is only by words.”
Then, staring ahead at a photo of himself as a younger man, he concludes: “I am addicted to charity work. Before, I was a drinker – I was addicted to drugs. When I started doing good deeds, all of my vices evaporated. The truth is this: I found that charity work is more addictive than anything. If I am now addicted to good deeds, then this is a better way to be.”
Story : Sam Foot, Translation: Awbur Nyan, Photo: Leo Jackson