In Myanmar, a process of democratization is underway after decades of isolation, economic stagnation, and social instability due to war and state repression. In a transition that is complex and uncertain, the building of social cohesion and a strong civil society is crucial to the country’s pursuit of peace and prosperity. Fifty-five-year-old Kyaw Thu is an exceptional figure in this story. Kyaw Thu is a hugely popular, award-winning actor in Myanmar who has acted and directed in over two hundred films; scion of a wealthy family in the movie business, he is professionally successful and socially privileged. Yet, he lives simply and is a devout Buddhist.
In 2001, with a colleague in the movies, he founded Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS) in Yangon, to help relieve the emotional and financial burden of the poor in properly burying their dead. Such a public service is both essential and unique in a predominantly Buddhist society where the proper funerary rites are crucially important but often beyond reach because of high costs, the lack of state welfare assistance, and the taboos surrounding the handling of the dead. Starting with just a single hearse, FFSS has grown to become not only a provider of free funeral services but also of a whole complex of social services. FFSS operates almost entirely through private donations and hundreds of volunteers. Its free funeral services cover everything from caskets, a fleet of hearses, mortuary facilities, burial and cremation, and funeral coordinators. To date, FFSS has undertaken over 150,000 free funeral services.
Caring not just for the dead but also for the living, FFSS opened a charity clinic manned by fifty volunteer doctors and a full staff. With five ambulances and 24-hour medical emergency response service, it offers services from maternal and dental care to blood transfusions and eye surgeries. It has provided health care to over 143,000 patients since it opened in 2007. An FFSS school offers free vocational training courses, classes for children, review classes for academic qualification examinations, and a library. FFSS also mobilizes and provides humanitarian assistance to refugees, and to victims of war and natural disasters. The society’s services are freely available to all in need, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.
Kyaw Thu leads all these efforts. He has used his personal funds, and his popularity as an actor has generated donations and support from all sectors. In a country where people handling the dead, like coffin makers and gravediggers, are viewed as lowly social outcasts, Kyaw Thu has himself carried coffins and driven the funeral hearse. He gives talks all over the country to spread the virtues of kindness and volunteerism. His example has inspired others in Myanmar to form free funeral service and other self-help groups.
His work goes beyond simple philanthropy. He has lent his prominence to other causes: distributing food and water to protesting monks during the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”; sending ambulances to aid student demonstrators recently protesting restrictive government policies; and publicly expressing his opinions on social issues. He and his wife have been detained; he was barred from filming or acting from 2007 to 2012; and FFSS has been harassed by authorities uneasy about Kyaw Thu’s influence. All these have not deterred him; they have only further enhanced his moral authority.
Kyaw Thu has no political ambitions and aspires neither for power nor greater glory. Driven by unbounded altruism, he says: “As an actor, I used to crave publicity, and chased after money and fame; now I want nothing else but to help those in need.”
In electing Kyaw Thu to receive the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes 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.
Mingalar Par; an auspicious day to you all!
First of all, I am truly honored and grateful to receive this recognition from the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and its Board of Trustees for my public service.
Today also marks our 34th wedding anniversary. My wife, Myint Myint Khin Pe (Shwe Zee Kwet) has tirelessly walked hand in hand with me in providing philanthropic services. This prestigious award, which I receive today, fulfills a sense of completeness towards our meaningful wedding anniversary.
As I accept this award, I would like to honor and dedicate this to the late U Thukha, my mentor and co-founder of the Free Funeral Service Society (Yangon). While we are witnessing the political transition in my country, Myanmar, this award is a true inspiration for me, for our society and for all those associations in our country which actively engage in charitable work and public service.
I have always believed that in movies, we actors or artists represent the true lives of our people—their feeling is my personal feeling. With this in mind, I have entered the world of noble work.
Although our organization was established in 2001 with the singular aim of offering free funeral services, we have since extended our services to various areas. Our interventions now include free health care services, free education, natural disaster response, humanitarian assistance to war victims, etc. Through development work and humanitarian assistance, we promote public participation and enhance public knowledge in the development of civil society in our country.
Public services in Myanmar have been deteriorating. We are trying our best to address issues where we can, and we are pleased with what we have done so far. However, in the long-run, the government should establish institutionalized policies, regulations and legal frameworks; and they should implement these systematically.
Although the process of democratic reforms is underway, I still see no difference in the people’s lives, especially the disadvantaged. I have witnessed this during my visits to various regions across the country, where I deliver philanthropic talks, attend ceremonies to open free healthcare clinics, and participate in dialogues, community events or meetings among social workers.
Despite the fact that we have increasing numbers of civil society organizations, we still have a lot to do to influence change in government policies to improve our economic and social environment. In Myanmar, there is a decline in moral standards and a worrisome trend towards materialism. The road towards our democratization, in my opinion, entails strong civil society organizations that can truly represent the voice of our people and hold the government responsible and accountable to the people.
Today, I accept this award on behalf of the women and men of Myanmar who join hands with me in building a better nation. For in the depths of my heart, this award is much more than an honor. It is a source of strength and inspiration for me and my people.
To conclude, I would like to express my sincere gratitude:
To the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation;
To my father U Sein Tin and my mother Daw Mya Than, who are here with me today;
To my wife, who has given me strength, encouragement and inspiration to live an ethical life and a life worth sharing;
To my daughter Myint-Mo Oo and her family, and my son Phyi Thein Kyaw—my beloved children towards whom I was not able to give my full fatherly love and care, but who willingly accepted and understood my time, commitment and contributions to public service.
I would also like to thank the staff, social workers and volunteers of the Free Funeral Service Society (Yangon), other organizations from all over Myanmar, and generous donors from Myanmar and abroad, all those who help in our work.
Last, but not least, I would like to thank Myanmar’s military regime, which in a way pushed me to have philanthropic motives, motives that triggered me to enter the world of service to the larger social good.
Thank you very much!