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In memory of U Maung Kyaw Nu

Richard Potter and U Maung Kyaw Nu

Richard Potter
RB Article
July 20, 2018

Early in the morning on May 31st U Maung Kyaw Nu passed away. Maung was known by most as a political activist and president of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand. He was a political prisoner in Burma for his role in protests in 1974. He was a proud rebel, and spoke fondly and often of his time in the jungle with various insurgencies, and his ability to coordinate between many religious, political and ethnic groups. Maung’s last years were spent in exile in Thailand, where his work continued in various forms. He helped organize student uprisings in Burma from his living room. He worked himself to exhaustion cooking and delivering food for Rohingyas locked away in Bangkok’s immigration detention center. He met with journalists, political leaders and human rights organizations every week. He sheltered Burmese dissidents, including monks, in his home. He stood up to and undermined human traffickers, even to their face. U Maung Kyaw Nu was my friend, and I saw him do all of these things. 

I met Maung Kyaw Nu for the first time, five years ago outside a cafe in Bangkok. We smoked and had coffee for some time, a habit he hid from cameras but one that would ultimately take his life. He was as passionate then as he was in his last days to make sure anyone who would listen would hear about the plight of his people. In the same week he took me to Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCCT). At the FCCT it was clear Maung had a fondness for speaking and making sure he would be heard. Any time there was an event regarding the Rohingya he positioned himself to ask questions to the panel and before the cameras. There were audible groans from some western journalists, researchers and pundits as Maung’s questions typically turned into speeches, and many would try to cut him off so they could return to demonstrating their expertise on all the things which Maung Kyaw Nu himself had lived through. He was never phased or insulted by this, but understood it as a game he’d have to play to try and make sure his and his people’s concerns were a part of these outsiders’ discussions about them. 

Maung Kyaw Nu was a man who existed in layers, but each of them was sincere. To those who spent enough time to get close with him, he would reward them with incredible stories from his life and work. His journey from political prisoner, to freedom fighter, to exiled political leader is complicated, to say the least, but consistently his goal was a free Burma where none would be oppressed. Maung Kyaw Nu was unique not only because he held concern for various ethnic and religious groups in Burma that often were at odds with each other, but that he was able to mediate and break bread between them. 

The small insurgencies in Rakhine State are a subject often omitted by activists, squeamish of the optics and implications, but Maung Kyaw Nu never let this deter him from speaking openly. Maung had a saying for the public, a call to unity among the Burmese civilians downtrodden by the state and the ethnic minorities who faced even worse oppression, “We fight, we win.” It was simple, hopeful, and direct, like Maung himself. In private he was even more blunt, “Fuck the Bamar army,” he said to me many times with a smile and a seriousness of work undone and ongoing. 

Insurgency in Burma is as old as the country itself, and to Maung this was simply a matter of fact and political reality which was useless to pretend didn’t exist. And while vast speculation still persists about the Rohingya insurgency in previous decades, there is a rarely noted militia called the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) where Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine belonged together, fighting the same battle. No group has managed to reconcile these two ethnicities so closely before or since, and Maung Kyaw Nu was their Vice President. As an achievement this can’t be overstated, but in the collected histories composed by foreign writers it is seldomly even a footnote. 

In his work in exile, Maung utilized every connection he had to further a future he hoped would come. In an instance that resulted in controversy, Maung managed to arrange a meeting with members of the Kachin Independence Army(KIA), one of Burma’s largest militias which is composed of the largely Christian Kachin ethnic minority. A video of the meeting was posted online and clips of Maung suggesting that the KIA train and cooperate with Rohingya caused rage and panic inside of Burma. Maung played this controversy two ways simultaneously, downplaying the meeting as an informal get together through a mutual western intermediary, which was true, but also as something worth aspiring for. He understood the public, especially the Burmese public, wasn’t ready to be inclusive to his Muslim minority as a political ally, but also that work with those who believed it was possible could be done behind closed doors. It was a line few but Maung could manage to walk, and one perhaps tragically left lingering with his passing. 

Maung’s final years saw him in deteriorating health, facing economic hardship and troubled deeply by the uncertainty of the Rohingyas’ future. He worked himself to exhaustion frequently and had difficulty sleeping. His situation, like that of the Rohingyas, worsened as time passed, but he was relentless in his aspirations. He suffered a stroke, then saw his health further decline. His black hair peppered as he was less able to keep it dyed before finally going white. He avoided the hospital for lack of funds, until he finally had no other option. Finally, cancer took him on the last day of May, 2018. He left behind a world of friends and family who loved him dearly, and now scramble to fill the gaps left in his absence. 

From his youth to his final days, Maung was a fighter, living through extraordinary events I’ve sworn to keep secret even in his passing. He loved his country and hated the corrupt Military regime which controlled it. He loved every ethnic and religious group of his countrymen, even when they rejected him for his own religion and ethnicity. He understood what many still are long to realize; that there would be no freedom for anyone until there was freedom for all. And there wasn’t a day i talked to Maung that he wasn’t striving with these believes deep in his heart to ensure a future where that freedom was a reality.

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