By May Sandy
July 11 - 17, 2011
Celebrities sit with children in a photograph to promote an immunisation campaign launched in 1993 by UNICEF, the Ministry of Health and the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation. Pic: Supplied by Swe Zin Htike
THERE was a time, several decades ago, when famous actors in Myanmar limited their public appearances to the silver screen, rarely getting involved in social work.
This began to change in the 1990s, when increasing numbers of celebrities followed the example of respected film director U Thu Kha, and started stepping out of the movie screen to help the needy and underprivileged.
“Celebrities in the olden days had different values,” said Myanmar Academy Award winning actress Swe Zin Htike. “They believed it was their privilege to be seen only on the screen.”
Swe Zin Htike is among the leading figures who used their celebrity status to raise awareness about the launch of an immunisation campaign in 1993, organised by UNICEF and the Ministry of Health with support from the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation.
Among her roles was contributing to a song called “Doe Chit Teh Gabar” aimed at stimulating public interest in the campaign.
Swe Zin Htike said the campaign marked one of the first times in Myanmar that a big group of artists was brought together to participate in social work.
“After the launch of the immunisation program, the government realised that celebrities could have a big influence on social work in the country,” she said.
Swe Zin Htike is also among the celebrities who have collaborated on HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns, and who have also worked to help reduce societal stigmas associated with the disease.
“A lot of creative people in the gay community have died from HIV/AIDS, so I wanted to help reduce the problem. When I started working on HIV prevention in 1999, there were conflicts even within my own family. In our society, talking about sexual diseases or condom use was unacceptable,” she said.
Within three years, however, the network of celebrities working on the issue became widespread.
“I was involved in a movie production about HIV, and many celebrities like actor U Aung Lwin and writers like Daw Khin Swe Oo and Juu participated in the workshops I conducted,” Swe Zin Htike said.
Other celebrities have focused on different aspects of social work, notable among them being actor Kyaw Thu, who took over chairmanship of the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS) after founder U Thu Kha passed away in 2002.
Kyaw Thu said offering free funeral service has been challenging at times.
“We couldn’t have our office downtown and we couldn’t have it in our homes, so we had to search for a monastery. We finally found a suitable place in Thingangyun township,” he said.
He said prejudices against funeral services were so strong that some township authorities did not allow FFSS vehicles to drive through their neighbourhoods.
“Some areas even put up signs saying, ‘No hearses allowed’,” he said.
Kyaw Thu said another challenge was finding young volunteers to take on the work.
“The dedication of donors has inspired me to continue this important work. We can’t let the people down. But I have devoted most of my time to the society. It has been 10 years already,” he said.
The financial needs of the society increased further in 2006 when the Yangon branch of FFSS opened the Thukha healthcare clinic, which has a staff of 50 volunteers who provide free medical treatment to about 150 patients a day.
Earlier this month singer Saung Oo Hlaing donated nearly K5 million to the society, using proceeds from a series of concerts he held in the United States in May.
“My fans came and talked to me about a song I had contributed to the society. I came to realise that I wanted to do more good deeds, so I decided to raise money during my performance,” Saung Oo Hlaing said at a donation ceremony at the society’s headquarters on July 3.
Kyaw Thu and Saung Oo Hlaing encouraged their fans to contribute, saying there should be “no fear” about taking part in social work.
“Our society is not a political party or anything. We are helping the needy people with noble hearts,” Kyaw Thu said at the ceremony.
Meanwhile, some younger celebrities such as Pyay Ti Oo and Ye Deik have launched their own charitable foundations to help the needy, but Swe Zin Htike said such organisations should be well-structured to ensure long-term sustainability.
“Every foundation needs to establish a vision, especially if it’s working in the education or health sectors, then draw up an implementation strategy, a plan for how much money they aim to raise in a certain amount of time, what kinds of projects they’ll be doing, etcetera,” said Swe Zin Htike.
Actor Ye Deik, who started a foundation under his own name in early January, said the sustainability of charitable organisations was partly dependent on the stability of the country.
His foundation provides shelter and emergency care to children made homeless by natural disasters.
“I contributed K7 million of my own money, and at our opening ceremony we raised another K20 million from actors and filmmakers,” he said.
Ye Deik said he has not yet drawn up a long-term plan to structure the organisation.
“I still need to learn these things. My intention is only to help the children when they are in need,” he said.
“It’s difficult to bridge the compromise between being an actor and a normal person. I’ve been focusing on my career, but I realise that I have to change some of my attitudes and beliefs. It’s a huge gap, and so far it’s still a challenge for me,” he said.
Another actor, Pyay Ti Oo, raises funds through private events to offer scholarships to outstanding students to attend institutes of medicine in Myanmar.
“Kids who attend medical school are well qualified. To help these kids is a way to deter brain drain in the country,” he said. “I will do my best with all the capacity I have. But I cannot predict how long it is going to happen.”
Pop singer Chit Thu Wai, who is also doctor, volunteered to help people in need following Cyclone Nargis, although she would not provide details.
“According to my Christian beliefs, it is said that ‘when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’. That’s why I will not tell anything about it because we are not really used to bragging about what we do for charity,” she said.