‘Burma’s Brad Pitt’ walks a fine line for political reform

Burmese film star turned political activist Kyaw Thu, who is in Seattle this month. (Courtesy photo by Myint Myint Khin Pe)
Burmese film star turned political activist Kyaw Thu, who is in Seattle this month promoting a film about his life. (Courtesy photo by Myint Myint Khin Pe)

It may have been a few years since he’s acted, but Kyaw Thu, leading man of Burmese film, still holds the room like a movie star.

Thu, who is in town as part of a two-month-long tour promoting his autobiographical documentary, “Walking a Fine Line,” has the type of gravelly voice and glinting eyes that translate well to a big screen.

I met him for coffee, along with his wife and his son James, a Boeing engineer who acted as translator. No one around us likely knew they were in the company of a man who has as many film credits as he does humanitarian awards.

“You basically met our ‘Brangelina’,” jokes Pwint Htun, a local telecommunications adviser and Burmese American who helped bring Thu and his wife, Myint Myint Khin Pe, to Seattle from Burma, also known as Myanmar.

And she wouldn’t be far off in her comparison — that is, if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had endured decades of government surveillance, professional blacklisting and occasional imprisonment for their work in one of the world’s toughest military regimes.

It’s what Thu calls “standing from the people’s side.” And it’s how he describes his journey from movie star to social activist, a journey that started with a bad piece of propaganda.

“They wanted a film that featured students as bad,” says Thu, remembering his first refusal to act in a pro-government film. It was 1988, and student uprisings were roiling the country.

“The movie didn’t feature the truth about the students and how they were suffering,” says Thu, who went on to refuse a number of roles that glorified the military or demonized minority groups.

And his noncooperation — alongside public solidarity with political prisoners — was met with increased censorship of his movies, blacklisting from awards and constant surveillance of his personal life. Thu says strangers snapped photos from balconies, and mysterious motorbikes tailed him everywhere he went.

But Thu says the experience helped him “see the people’s suffering,” and he wanted to use his high profile to help his country. That calling brought him and his wife to help found the “Free Funeral Service Society” in 2001.

“People were really poor at that time, so they didn’t have money for funeral services,“ says Thu, explaining that the average Burmese funeral can cost between $100 and $150, in a country where some people make as little as $20 a month. “There were a lot of people, families, leaving their loved ones at the hospital or on the side of the street.”

But even this work was seen as a threat to the military government.

“The government, of course, didn’t like it,” says Thu. “It’s the kind of social work that points out the sufferings of people and made them look bad.”

Trouble came again in 2007 when he and his wife spoke out in support of protests led by Buddhist monks. They were detained and questioned for a week, and with this imprisonment came an outright ban on making any more films.

Thu took the punishment as a blessing. He used the next eight years to focus on his social work.

By 2015, when a landmark election ushered in new leadership, with military rule having ended a few years earlier, The Free Funeral Service Society had expanded to include a clinic, a library and disaster-relief services. It has now helped pay for more than 160,000 funerals.

Today, Thu is somewhat optimistic for his country, but warns that hard work is ahead. Generations of oppression and corruption don’t disappear with an election.

“It’s complicated,” he explains when I ask where Burma is today. And then, ever the cool movie star, he rolls up his denim sleeves to read a tattoo of a self-composed poem.

“Walk your own path, do your own duty, fulfill your own obligations,” he reads as the woman at the next table gawks at his beefy forearm. “Be guided by your own virtue, write your own history.”

Good advice for a man, or a country.

“Walking a Fine Line” at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on Tuesday, September 13th at 7:00. Thu will be in attendance. For information visit SAM’s calendar.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.