Former actor and film director Kyaw Thu is a two-time winner of the Myanmar Academy Award, and during the 1980s and 1990s, one of Burmese cinema’s leading men. Since his arrest in 2007 for offering food to monks during the Saffron Revolution, he has been banned from the film world. Yet in the four years since, he has emerged as one of the Burmese government’s most outspoken critics, and now runs the Rangoon-based Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS).
What ways are left for you to express yourself as an artist after the bans that have been imposed on you?
Being an artist, I have to be creating art for my own mental wellbeing. Now I am painting in my free time and writing some articles. The articles I’m writing are not about entertainment but about my experiences in charity work, about the hardships the people are facing and our work in assisting them.
You lived about two-thirds of your lifetime as an artist and film star. How did you feel when you are banned from this?
I’m a film actor and director. So I felt very emotional when I was banned from acting and directing. But before I was banned in 2007, I could only come to [the FFSS office] in the morning before I went to shoot and then come back in the evening when the shooting is done. I could only devote part of my time for the [charity] work. But now, I’m in the office by 6:30-7am in the morning and stay there until 4-5pm in the afternoon – I can fully devote all my time to serve the people so in a way I get a chance to return my thanks to my audience and fans. For that, I’m thankful [to the government] for banning me.
Do you find much difference between your life as an artist and as a charity worker?
During my life as an entertainer, with my images on the silver screen, I had to make people emotional; make them feel happy, angry and sad through my performance. For that, I saw performing entertainment induces bad karma in a way. But now, I am doing all my best to give necessary help and solve problems for the people – give them a helping hand. I’m now working in the field close to the people, offering them help and assistance, and I take this as making merit.
Why does the Burmese government jail artists and public figures who respond to humanitarian issues or crises?
We artists and entertainers are regarded as the country’s role models and the people tend to admire and follow what we do. We have to show devotion to religion and charity work so the people will take heed from us and follow this path. It is very inhumane to ban entertainers who do charity work and offer meals to monks for their religious beliefs [referring to his meal offering to monks at Shwedagon Pagoda in the September 2007 protests].
Can one be a good artist in Burma in its present political state and not be politically engaged or involved?
I think that an artist who doesn’t want to deal with charity work and politics [in a country like Burma] has to be an egoist. An egoist will only focus on his ego and how to make money, and those people are taking the path to hell. In my opinion, an artist or entertainer, along with creating art, should also do charity work and engage in politics because it is a direct concern for the people. But when we say we are active in civil society and politics, it doesn’t mean that we are setting up a party and looking to become the country’s leaders. But I think [the regime] worried that we would form a party and steal their power, and this is why they are imposing restrictions and arresting people like us.
Why did you decide to start the Free Funeral Service Society?
It was started by U Thukha [late influential film director and public figure]. I saw that back then [about 10 years ago] there was no Burmese [Buddhist] group working to assist funerals but there were groups among the Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities that did that. So we came up with this idea to set up a group to assist [Buddhist] funerals. As we progressed with it, we started offering medical assistance for the poor because, through our funeral work, we found that people were dying unnecessarily due to lack of money, medicine and health assistance. From that, we are now stepping up to providing free education as well because due to the lack of education, people often don’t know which medicine to take. Also, we found that most people have poor English language skills – that includes myself as well. We are now providing children with education courses focusing on the English language.
Is there any cinema in Burma that has confronted political realities and that would present a valuable picture of the struggles in Burma to the outside world?
I don’t think we will ever get to that stage of freedom. I have been banned for over three years. During the interrogations before my release [from several days in detention following the September incident], the police chief told me they wanted to see me only doing my charity and entertainment work. But then, when I came out, I was banned from doing entertainment work and it wasn’t even an official order – they just told me [verbally] that I can no longer take part in films.
What pressures do you now face as a charity worker?
In my charity work, I am hindered from contributing to society. Now I can’t go and visit my son and my daughter who are living abroad because my passport expired about two years ago, and when I tried to extend it, authorities said I needed approval from the Film Association. When I went to the Association, they denied me approval. Recently, I went to [immigration] again and told them it would be impossible for me to get approval from the Film Association as I am no long an actor and haven’t done any films for over three years. Then, they asked me to get a certificate from the Association acknowledging that I am no longer an actor.
Are you hopeful that things will improve in Burma?
Even someone like me who is not in the prison is heavily restricted from going where I want – I can’t even see my children and my grandchild. We are just entertainers and we never raised our fists and rebelled against the government, but were simply just offering meals to monks. It is a very ugly thing to do put restrictions upon us according to their laws. This is an embarrassing thing for our country in the eyes of the international community. I’m not holding high hopes now but am just doing what I can. About two years ago, a leader in the government told me: “Ko Kyaw Thu, don’t raise your voice,” basically warning me not to raise issues via the foreign media. I replied to him saying: “General, it doesn’t matter who is ruling our country or acting as the government, but I will still be organising funerals… and still be raising my voice against wrongdoing.”