TOPICS > Arts > Culture at Risk

Former Burmese movie star finds leading role as activist

May 19, 2014 at 6:48 PM EDT
In the 1980s and '90s, Kyaw Thu was one of Myanmar's leading film stars, appearing in more than 200 movies. He was so popular that the military government cast him in several propaganda films. But when he turned down a role, it ended his acting career. Instead, he founded a service that provides funerals for those who can't afford them. Jeffrey Brown tells the story of personal transformation.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: one man’s story of transformation. It comes from Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, where, until recently, a military government denied political freedoms and kept it closed from the outside world.

Jeffrey Brown traveled there recently. Here’s the last of his reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a simple act: driving a hearse through a poor neighborhood in the city of Yangon. But it’s part of a larger effort with great significance for the country and the driver.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Kyaw Thu was one of Myanmar’s leading film stars, appearing in more than 200 movies, directing six others, and winning two Burmese Academy Awards. He was so popular, the military government used him to star in several propaganda films.

In one, he played a government soldier fighting rebels in the ethnic region of Karen.

KYAW THU, Activist (through interpreter): We had to carry guns with bullets in them to assure our safety during filming. The Karen rebels had ordered me dead. They had put a price on my head, because I was making these propaganda films.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a certain point, though, Kyaw Thu realized that his sympathies were more with the protesters and rebels. So, when the government asked him to do another propaganda film, he made a career-ending decision.

KYAW THU (through interpreter): It was a film about students taking up arms and fighting against the military government. I didn’t want to do it, so I refused.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2001, he turned from acting to activism, founding the Free Funeral Service Society, which provides funeral arrangements for people who can’t afford them. He says he still remembers the first time he went to pick up a body.

KYAW THU (through interpreter): It was a young girl who died of a snakebite. The father initially didn’t think he could afford the hospital costs, so he didn’t send her at first. By the time he decided he must, it was too late, and she died on the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: From that humble beginning, his organization has now helped nearly 140,000 families, often dozens a day.

So, these are all the calls that came in today about bodies?

KYAW THU (through interpreter): Yes, with a listing of the hospital and the address.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, 24 calls already today? It’s just after 1:00.

KYAW THU (through interpreter): Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is no small matter in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country, where funeral services are steeped in tradition, and also can be quite costly.

The Free Funeral Service helps with everything, transportation of the body, the service, including flowers, and cremation or burial. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia. The World Bank estimates that a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line and a third of all children under 5 are malnourished.

So the government here can’t provide what we would call a safety net for the services that you offer?

KYAW THU (through interpreter): No, there isn’t any government support. The government says they are helping with the education sector and the medical sector, but they don’t spend any money. The government is always saying things, but they don’t follow up. And the people end up suffering for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so Kyaw Thu’s work has expanded to include education and medical services both in Yangon and around the country. More than 400 young children attend this school, housed in a brand-new building. Young adults attend computer and business classes.

And this medical clinic, one of five such centers, provides everything from basic checkups to dental services and even high-tech eye operations. The money is raised through private donations.

Taken altogether, Kyaw Thu says he’s found his true calling.

KYAW THU (through interpreter): The happiness you have as an actor when you watch your film on the silver screen or the happiness you feel when you win an Academy Award doesn’t compare to the happiness you feel when you help someone with a funeral or when you help someone with their education or a health problem. Helping people like that is true contentment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last fall, Kyaw Thu wrote a book called “If I Were President.” It was both a critique of the current government and a proposed action plan for building up social structures in Myanmar.

Could you ever imagine running for president yourself?

KYAW THU (through interpreter): No. I was just pointing out what the government should be supporting and what the communities need. I have no desire to run for the presidency. I am not interested in party politics. I’m working for the people. I’m working for my country.

JEFFREY BROWN: No longer an actor, but once again, as word of his work has spread, a star in his country.