Monday, 21 May 2012

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 the same reasons - he wasn't handsome or tall, he was a Muslim whilst we were devout Buddhists, and he was divorced with children. I was selfishly filled with a sense of what the Burmese call "n'myaw" - roughly translated as feeling it was a terrible waste of my aunt's loveliness.

He grew on me though. 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 Man 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 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 puris 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 puris 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, 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. His life had already taken a turn for the bizarre. Having babysat Daw Suu's son Kim Aris when he was little, on Kim's return, my uncle looked 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 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