I recently lost a very good friend.
His name was Myo. A man in his late 50’s who had the heart of a child. He wa full of hope and faith. Though he died young, he lived a full life, fighting for freedom for his country. He was part of 8-8 of 88 ( learn more here ). He was inspiring, intelligent, passionate, caring and full of love.
Myo was my closest Burmese friend. We spent hours together talking about the culture and history of his beloved country, Burma. Very few people know the ins and outs of No-Man’s-Land so it was a privilege to learn so much from his. It is because of this man that I have the respect and trust of the people who live in NML. He vouched for me.
One of the greatest qualities of Myo was his generosity. Anything he received, be it gifts, money or food, he quickly found a person in greater need and gave it away. Everyone along the border and in Myawaddy (a city in Burma) knew him and loved him. Kids would run up to him shouting, “grandpa Myo!!!!”. He was so widely known and respected that the officials would let him cross the border between Burma and Thailand without a passport, papers or money. Everyone knew this man as a person who took care of his neighbor, whether that be the guy sitting next to him or the children who were hungry and begging. He was a man who knew God, loved God and wanted to fight for people to the best of his ability.
The day he died is a blur. It all happened so fast.
We found out on a Friday night that he had collapsed and was taken the the hospital. By 9am the next morning he had died. We learned that his funeral would be at 2pm so we quickly crossed into Burma to attend his funeral, and at 4pm we were back in Thailand.
Written below is a recounting of the day’s events, towards the end it gets a bit graphic.
The hospital inside of Myawaddy, (Burma) is filthy and has sub par treatment. Though I wasn’t concerned for him life when I heard the news, they told us he has high blood pressure and that he’d probably recover soon. The next morning everyone went to play sports with a few children’s homes (as is our weekly routine) and I was at our restaurant, Famous Ray’s. I was setting things up to open when my good friend and teammate ,Michael arrived with tears in his eyes. I looked at him and somehow I just knew. I said, “Is it Myo?” he just shook his head, and I started crying knowing that he had died. Michael stood there holding me for a good 5 minutes as I was in shock, saying, “no” over and over again. It was all so quick, so sudden. We later found out that he had a stroke.
Whenever we go into Burma we always hire the same van driver. He’s become our friend, and within the next hour we got a phone call from him and he said an NGO (non government org) had taken over for Myo since he had no relatives near, and no phone number for these relatives. He told us that this org moves fast. We had no idea how fast! By 1pm that very same day we (16 of us) were all crossing over the boarder with passports in hand. We met our friend mid-way across the bridge, jumped in and he took us to our first destination. We arrived at Myo’s home. The word “simple” doesn’t begin to describe the way that Myo lived. His room, as it should actually be called, was no more than 6 feet by 12 feet. His bed was a standard Burmese bamboo mat that sat on a piece of plywood that laid across two tires. In the other corner of his room sat a chair. These were the only pieces of furniture. Above his bed were two Thai calendars with the Kings picture on them. Taped to the cement wall were two birthday cards that some of my American friend’s children made him a few months ago. Then, next to the cards in black sharpie he had written, “God is with us”.
As I walked out of his room I was greeted by a small child holding a bag with a bottle of water and a bottle of juice. There were probably 50 of these bags on a small table in the tiny alleyway we were all standing in. Something to note here is this community we were in does not have money. They don’t have money for food, let alone water and juice to give to total strangers. Something in them was compelled though to treat Myo’s friends with this kind of love and respect. You have to believe that Myo was so good and kind to them, that they wanted to treat his friends just the same.
After everyone had looked at Myo’s room we all gathered in the alley of Myo’s community. They provided chairs and small paper fans to cool ourselves with. We all knew that the NGO in charge of Myo’s body was a Buddhist org and therefore, likely that his funeral would be as well. We sat there in the place he lived and prayed, worshiped and told stories of the man we knew and loved.
After sometime we loaded back into the vans and drove out to the hospital where his body lay. We all walked up a dirt /gravel road and stepped into a small cement building where Myo’s body was. He was wearing a white shirt and a standard Burmese longyi. There was a woman at his head with a washcloth keeping the bugs off his face and wiping it every so often. We all gathered in to see our friend, and sang Amazing Grace. In Buddhist culture, its custom to take all of deceased belongings and burn them with the body, but before we left a hospital worker handed my friend Candace his Bible and gave me all the money Myo had – 2,000 Kyat equivalent to $2USD. The worker also gave me a pin, one that you wear on your shirt that had his political party on it. I will forever keep this pin and money.
When we arrived at the cremation building I was sad and confused but also a bit scared. I knew that they would burn his body but I wasn’t sure how exposed it would be. A part of me was even angry. I didn’t understand the rush, and I definitely didn’t understand all the Buddhist rituals and customs.
Word of Myo’s death spread quickly, there were at least 30 people there paying their respects and saying goodbye to their dear friend. The next several minutes of that day will forever be etched in my memory. They unloaded his body and put him on a bamboo mat on top a steel table.
We then all gathered around him at the entrance to the building, just 15 feet away from where he would be cremated. They turned the fire down, but standing so close, I could feel the heat.
From this point on everything they did had a Buddhist spiritual meaning, and is part of their culture. They lit a cigarette and put it in between his lips. They believed that his spirit could smoke, eat and drink. They laid a full pack of cigarettes next to him. At his head they put a full, ice cold bottle of water along with a small box of food and betel nut, (tobacco like and gives a buzz, subsides hunger).
They asked us if we would like to say anything, and they invited us to sing another song. A friend/teammate of mine prayed a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving for this man’s life and we all sang through our tears, another song.
They rolled the table inside the building at this point right up to the long, narrow cement container full of blazing fire. One man stood in front of Myo’s head held a coconut in one hand and a machete in the other. He spoke in Burmese, cracked the coconut over Myo’s face and spilled all the coconut water onto him. He then without looking up, threw the drained coconut over his head.
Two men came and picked up the mat, one on each side while another man opened the door to the container where the fire was blazing. I grasped one of my teammates and held on to her arm hard as they threw my best Burmese friend in along with all of his belongings. I can’t actually described to you what it was like being there, watching all of that take place. I can tell you that it is a sight that will never escape my mind, having to watch your friend be cremated. In a way, it was traumatic for me to watch. Every funeral I have been to is very private and much less visual.
I got to say my goodbye to Myo, I got to thank him for all the hours we sat together under the bridge talking. I got to thank him for all the Burmese he taught me, for all the laughs, all the lessons he taught me about his culture, and his beloved people. I have never met a man so devoted to their country and devoted to making a difference. Myo was passionate about change, about education and about love. After the funeral on our way to the border to cross back into Thailand I opened Myo’s Bible that was given to Candace. Written in the front page, first in Burmese, then in English, “Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. Romans 13:8″ Nothing speaks better to the character of Myo than this verse.