Myanmar’s Kyaw Thu: The people’s humanitarian

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Myanmar’s Kyaw Thu: The people’s humanitarian
'The people’s tears are your tears. The people’s happiness is your happiness,' says humanitarian Kyaw Thu

MANILA, Philippines – Popular Burmese award-winning actor and humanitarian Kyaw Thu lights up when he speaks of the characters close to people’s hearts he has portrayed.

It is this affinity to the masses that drives him to street protests offering Buddhist monks food, to cyclone victims distributing aid, and to farmer communities providing free funeral services.

“The people’s tears are your tears. The people’s happiness is your happiness,” he told Rappler in his native language.

Thu is the co-founder and president of the Yangon-based Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS), which enables families from different religious and ethnic backgrounds to bury their loved ones with dignity.

FFSS has provided 150,000 free funeral services. It has a charity clinic with 50 volunteer doctors and staff, and provides 24-hour medical emergency response services.

The 56-year-old artist and advocate is among the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees

Considered the Nobel Prize of Asia, the Ramon Magsaysay Award seeks to honor people or groups who change communities in the region for the better.

Thu said he wants to exert positive influence – a product of his maturity both as an artist and a national from a country that has undergone much economic and political turmoil.

FUNERAL. Kyaw Thu himself helps in the free funeral services offered by his organization. Photo from the Ramon Magsaysay Awards foundation

Maturity as an artist

Thu was once your typical trend-setting, charismatic actor with a bad boy image. Along with his fame came the heavy drinking and smoking.

He recalled that in 1996, he was hospitalized after a friend offered him cocaine. He had an allergic reaction to the rubber lining of the oxygen mask at the hospital, which scarred his nose.

The scar is a reminder of the time he almost died – a time he wouldn’t want to happen again. He said this was among his wake-up calls.

Through the constant support of his wife Myint Myint Khin Pe, the teachings of Buddhism, and his own self will, he started getting rid of his vices.

His wife said Thu still smokes, but not as alarmingly frequent as before.

As he matured, Thu wanted to be in “movies that motivate” and portray the lives of ordinary Burmese people.

For much of his film career, he refused to engage in propaganda films that created disproportionately positive messages about the then ruling military junta.

Maturity as a Burmese national

Thu’s film career came to a temporary halt starting 2007, when he helped out Buddhist monks in the Saffron Revolution.

The revolution’s participants were activists, political leaders, and students protesting the government’s withdrawal of fuel subsidies in late 2007. It led to deaths and the detention of dozens of protesters.

After the series of protests, the government did not issue a  written notice about its censorship of Thu’s films. He only learned about it from news reports.

This brought him much gloom, but his wife – now his partner for over 3 decades – told him that there is much more to life than his acting career. Thu started to focus all his attention to his advocacy.

In 2008, he was on the ground helping the victims of Cyclone Nargis – the worst natural disaster to ever hit Myanmar.

Thu told Rappler he was deeply hurt seeing first-hand what he called government inaction amidst the suffering of the people. Myanmar had refused international aid at that time.

MEDICAL SERVICES. Kyaw Thu's organization provides 24-hour medical services to people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. Photo from the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation


While among the wealthy household names in Burma, Thu’s family was not immune to the effects of militarization.

At the start of the military junta’s rule in 1962, their family-owned garment factories were nationalized. His father was jailed.

Only a child then, Thu said he did not immediately feel the loss except on his regular trips to movie houses when most foreign films had already been censored.

Thu admits he has come a long way. He said he started out focusing on how “to be famous, to earn well, and to earn the awards.” Now, it is all about putting others’ needs before his.

“Whether you come from poor or rich, as long as you have a compassionate heart, you can feel for the people,” he told Rappler.

ADVICE. Humanitarian and actor Kyaw Thu tells his fellowmen to write their history well. Photo by Rappler

Write your history well

This year, Thu is being awarded for “his generous compassion in addressing the fundamental needs of both the living and the dead in Myanmar – regardless of their class or religion – and his channeling personal fame and privilege to mobilize many others toward serving the greater social good.”

His wife, of course, still remembers him as the man with a charming smile she chose to be with even while Thu was still in university.

“He’s very handsome. He acts very naturally,” she said. Even Myanmar President Thein Sein is a fan.

For those he has helped, Thu is the rich and famous man who preferred to live simply and use his resources to lend a hand to both the living and the dead.

Thu’s core message to the people of Myanmar is simple: “Do your best. Go your own way….Do not step on other people.”

In a country slowly moving towards democracy, still reeling from persistent negative reports about human rights violations and suppression of freedoms, Thu wants to be a positive force providing both the tangible and intangible – inspiration and actual services – to his fellowmen.

“You are the one who’s going to write your own history. Write it well,” he said. –

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