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My uncle U Thein Han

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Thein Han in 1990

My aunt on my father's side is the physical opposite of me. Willowy, slender and beautiful, with the fairest skin and the glossiest ebony hair. She didn't get married till she was in her forties though - for the most part because her parents, my grandparents, thought no one was good enough for her.

I confess I didn't take to her new husband U Thein Han for similar, arbitrary reasons - he wasn't handsome or tall, he was a Muslim whilst we were Buddhist, and he was divorced with children. I was selfishly filled with a sense of what the Burmese call "n'myaw" - roughly translated as feeling their marriage was a terrible waste of my aunt's loveliness.

He grew on me though (and maybe I grew up too). He was a lawyer, like me, but unlike me he really seemed to love his job. This passion permeated every part of his life - he was mad about Manchester United (whose games you could only see via "cracked" satellite in Burma) and he was clearly head over heels with my aunt and would do absolutely anything for her - and for my grandparents, his in-laws.

I don't know - maybe he just wore us down with his enthusiasm. But how could I not like someone who was so devoted to my aunt?

My grandparents and aunt and uncle in front of the family home

It became a comforting ritual that whenever we landed at Mandalay airport, my uncle would come pick us up in his car in his smart traditional jacket, longyi and velvet flipflops, and drive us the hour or so back to the family home. With my dad in the front seat, my mum, my husband and me crammed in the back, the road to Mandalay proper was easily one of my favourite journeys.

As we jolted down the dusty unmade road, through a landscape of whitewashed stupas, past motorbikes laden with chickens, bullock carts full of cabbages, and buses festooned with saffron-robed monks, my uncle would update us on gossip as well as how life was going in Burma generally.

And we'd always make a pit stop where he'd pull up outside Hbun Thakin teashop for breakfast and we'd shove hot pooris and potato curry in our mouths, sip steaming green tea and chat some more in the early morning cold, before he'd order some extra pooris and dal to take away in a little plastic bag for my aunt patiently waiting at home.

The last time we made this journey, in February, the ride seemed quicker and quieter, and much less picturesque. My uncle mentioned that we were taking the new road which had just been built: "For all the tourists they expect to come visit".

I said I supposed it was a sign of progress, but that I missed the old journey. He said, "Change is a good thing" and chuckled, and then he began to speak of other changes before he passed back a red card with a gold peacock chasing a white star to me.

My reading Burmese is rusty, so I asked my mum beside me to tell me what it said. "It's from Daw Suu - it says thank you for everything".

See, my uncle has been my uncle since I was 16, but before that he was a lawyer to the Lady herself, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

U Thein Han and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011

That black & white picture of my uncle and Daw Suu at the top was taken in 1990 at the official Burmese Independence Day celebrations in Yangon. A few months later, he was imprisoned (Daw Suu was already under house arrest) - and they were the only two National League for Democracy candidates who were barred from standing for election that year, though the NLD still won in a landslide.

Three years later, my uncle was released, though with broken ribs and missing front teeth as an unpleasant souvenir of his time behind bars. He became friends with my grandfather shortly after that (my Po Po had also been a freedom fighter) and through him, he met my aunt and the rest, as they say, is history.

Last June, my uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer. He'd never smoked, and we suspected that this might be another relic of the conditions he'd suffered in prison.

But he carried on as before, and in fact was even busier, as Daw Suu's release from house arrest meant he had much more work to do, and his life began to take a turn for the bizarre.

Having babysat Daw Suu's son Kim Aris when he was little, on Kim's return, my uncle was charged by her to look after him once more ("He said he was craving pork ribs, so I took him to a restaurant. He ate FOUR plates full").

More startling was a photo of him with the film star Michelle Yeoh in the Telegraph from when she first came to research her role in The Lady.

And in August, my uncle even flew to Stockholm to represent Daw Suu and speak at the Global Forum on Civil Society Law, and I'm not sure I've ever been prouder.

U Thein Han addressing the Global Forum on Civil Society Law

When we went to stay with them in February, he seemed more vibrant and active than ever. My aunt seemed in worse shape than he did - she'd broken her foot and needed a wheelchair to get around. I whispered to my mother, "Are you sure he's ill?" and my mother replied, "Your father and I have seen his medical records. The cancer's spread - he's not got long".

He was working all the time we were in Mandalay, but just before we flew back to Yangon, he took the day off so we could all go on a trip to Kyaukse to visit a pagoda that had recently been unearthed. I griped about the 5am start, but my mother scolded me and said, "Your uncle's never been, and he'd want you to come along".

Smiley as ever, he traipsed around with us, reading the inscriptions out loud, and snapping away with his little point-and-shoot. And he pushed my aunt around in her wheelchair, and fussed over her, and chatted to her like a newly-wed - or as if he still couldn't believe his luck after 17 years together.

Two weeks ago, I was pottering away for Stir Wars in the kitchen at Tsuru, when I received a text from my dad - a phone number in Bangkok and my aunt's mobile. I rang back, flustered and said, "What are these?"

My dad said, "Your uncle's in hospital in Bangkok right now - the cancer's spread again. Your aunt's still in Mandalay. Phone him, and phone your aunt". 

So I rang and my uncle sounded chipper as ever - he said he was fine and he asked how I was and he said he'd been worried about me (I've been ill myself which is why I haven't blogged for a while).

My aunt on the other hand sounded quiet and odd, and then she broke down into tears, and I suddenly realised that I had no idea what to say to her and that my Burmese didn't extend to this sort of situation, so I just listened and made the occasional comforting grunt. I ended the call promising to ring them both again the next weekend.

Of course, I didn't - my brother-in-law got married that weekend, and when we eventually got home from the wedding, we had dozens of chores so I forgot.

On Friday, I had my phone off all day. When I switched it on, a text came through from my dad: "U Thein Han passed away". I rang my parents immediately, and my face grew hot and stung and I started to cry, but it was mainly through feeling like a complete and utter shit for failing to ring my uncle. I didn't confess this to my parents, but I rang my husband next and told him and he said, "Don't feel bad" and I said, "How can I not? I said I'd ring and I didn't ring and now he's dead".

My husband stopped me wallowing in self-pity and recrimination. He said to me, "Why don't you write about him? Honour him that way".

So here I am.

Just before I started writing this, I Googled my uncle's name in case there was anything in the news about his passing. I found a couple of announcements in Burmese, but then I was surprised to find this video on Youtube. 

I thought it might be difficult to hear him speak, but it was comforting - I could pretend I was still talking to him. Like he was still here.

The nicest thing is the interview epitomises everything about him - passionate yet modest - he never even mentioned to us that he was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's election campaign manager - just that he was working for her again.

I'm so glad he was around to see his recent efforts paid off when the NLD won this year's by-election. I just wish he could have been around for the end game and seen democracy in his lifetime.

Rest in peace, Uncle U Thein Han. We'll miss you.

My uncle, aunt and me at their home


Erin said…
That's a really lovely tribute, thank you for sharing your memories of him with us. x
Alicia Foodycat said…
What an amazing man - my sympathies to your family and especially your aunt for his loss.
Kavey said…
Oh MiMi. I'm so very sorry for your loss, and I've loved getting to know a little of your uncle (and aunt) through your beautiful post. Really, beautiful.
Unknown said…
What a lovely post Mimi, such an interesting man. x
Lisa Cookwitch said…
That's a beautiful tribute MiMi. Thank you for sharing your uncle with us. xxx
Miss Cay said…
This is a wonderful post MiMi. I'm sorry for your loss - he sounds like a fascinating man. xx
Su-Lin said…
Beautiful post, MiMi, and I am so sorry for your loss.
Dennis K. said…
Thanks for sharing Meemalee. This was a wonderful post.
hp1982 said…
Wow, what a moving tribute to such a wonderful man. Sorry for your loss.
Miss Whiplash said…
This is beautiful.
What an amazing uncle.
What a beautiful beautiful tribute.x
Epicurienne said…
This is such a beautiful and honest tribute to a special man. We could all learn a lot from his modest ways and courage. Heartfelt condolences to you and your family.
Tang said…
Mimi it is such a moving piece you wrote. He is a wonderful person, very sorry for your loss xx
sakura said…
My condolences, Mimi. You wrote beautifully about such an inspiring man.
Sharmila said…
What a wonderful post, and a fitting tribute to an obviously amazing man xx
The Grubworm said…
So sorry to hear that you lost an uncle, hope you;re feeling as ok as is possible under the circumstances. But what a full, and amazing, life your uncle had. This is a a great and fitting tribute to a very interesting man.
A beautiful post, and a fitting tribute. Ixx
walshy said…
So beautiful mimi. You must be so proud of him. x
PDH said…
Your uncle sounds like a real hero! So sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing such a beautiful tribute to a clearly amazing man X
Get Lippie said…
You wrote a beautiful post in honour of this wonderful man. I'm very sorry for you loss xx
Hollow Legs said…
Great post MiMi, and it brought a tear to my eye. He sounds like a great man.
Sorry to hear of your loss. Your Uncle sounds like a warm, loving and interesting man. I am glad you told his story here.
josordoni said…
Lovely tribute MiMi. I am so sorry for your loss, and so proud through you of your uncle. And yes, my eyes are stinging a bit. But I won't cry, that isn't right. And from what you say, I don't think your uncle would want me to anyway.

So {[hugs}} for you instead.
Lucy Fishwife said…
What a lovely post. Is it wrong to say you've made me sad and also really hungry? Thanks xLucy
Simon said…
Such a beautiful tribute, sounds like a really interesting character.
Baglady said…
Really beautiful post, Mimi, I am sure he would be pleased that you have remembered him this way. He sounds like he was a really wonderful chap - so unusual for someone so important to be so humble.

Thank you for sharing.
It is indeed a touching and personal tribute to U Thein Han your uncle. Condolences to your family on this great loss. May he rest in peace!
It is indeed a touching and personal tribute to U Thein Han your uncle. Condolences to your family on this great loss. May he rest in peace!
GrowingDirect said…
MiMi, just simply beautiful, your wonderful words have given me a glimpse into the life of this amazing man - I'm sure that he would have been incredibly proud if this.

My thoughts are with you and your family at this sad time, but what a wonderful tribute to him MiMi xXx

Will said…
Oh MiMi, I teared up. He sounds a wonderful man.
Shaista said…
Your husband's advice suggests you have found someone who understands your worth just as your Uncle Han valued your aunt. Your aunt must be deeply special too, to have had the admiration and love of such an extraordinary human being. I am sure she is very touched and moved by your eulogy.

Thankyou for writing, for sharing and for continuing your Uncle in each of us - I wish him Happy Continuation in you, his lovely niece.
amro said…
What a wonderful man and a wonderful post. x
Judith said…
What a brave and wonderful man your uncle was. Such a heartfelt tribute, thank you.
Mimi, this is a beautiful tribute - what a great contribution your Uncle made to the world. x
chumbles said…
You have done your Uncle, who sounds a wonderful and inspiring man, great justice with a beautiful and beautifully written tribute. Big hugs.
Helen T said…
What a lovely tribute to him, and what a life he had. Thank you for sharing his story.
To your uncle's memory. May we all be inspired to carry on a little good work of our own while we still have time and breath.

Thank you for sharing this.

Matt Inwood said…
Your husband was absolutely right, but even he might not have anticipated that you would say goodbye with such grace and moving affection. Beautiful writing: so clean and measured.