Pop stars, celebrated comedians, and beloved poets are among 130 Myanmar artists to have died in the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic since the beginning of July — deaths that loved ones blame on poor medical treatment in a country in turmoil six months after a military coup.
The loss of life in the worlds of literature, film, music, and theater in the country of 54 million people comes at a time when artists and entertainers are struggling to make ends meet after 18 months of venue lockdowns to fight the pandemic, followed by chaos since the Feb. 1 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
According to an RFA tally, 73 writers and poets, 22 cartoonists and painters, 18 film stars and theater performers, and 18 singers and songwriters have died in recent weeks — a death toll that might undercount nationwide fatalities in the arts.
As of Tuesday, Myanmar recorded nearly 361,300 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 3,306 new ones, and 13,623 deaths, including 178 new related fatalities since the pandemic first hit the country in March 2020, according to figures from the Ministry of Health and Sports.
While a handful of artists died of natural causes, most succumbed to the COVID-19 virus, which has seen a resurgence in Myanmar with the highly contagious delta variant.
Family members and friends of the cultural figures who passed away said they died from a lack of proper medical care because hospitals and clinics were closed when the third virus wave began in early June. Many doctors and other health professionals had joined the nationwide anti-coup movement and were fired.
The deceased included writers Hsinbyukyun Aung Thein, Theik Tun Thet, Khin Saw Tint, Sindewa Myat Phone, Annawar Soe Moe, Nyi Zay Min, and Khin Maung Win, and poets Min Yu Wai, Aung Cheimt, Maung Thin Khine, and Lu Zaw Thit.
Poet Min Yu Wai was the founder of Ngwe Taryi, a once-popular magazine in Myanmar. Aung Cheimt, who was popular among young people for his poem “Let Me Lose, Let the Dhamma Win,” was recognized as a leading writer of modern Burmese poetry.
Popular female writer Thwe Sagaing said the deaths have been a great loss for the country’s cultural scene.
“It’s very sad that deaths of these leading people in the literary world, scholars, poets, and writers are a great loss for Myanmar’s literary world,” she said. “These are huge losses for the country as well.”
‘We’ve seen a lot of losses’
Cartoonist Zaw Weik, sculptor Sonny Nyein, and modern artist Dr. Ko Ko Gyi also died. Ko Ko Gyi, known for his abstract paintings, was also a practicing psychiatrist who treated traumatized political prisoners.
In the field of music, songwriters Tony Tin, Tetkatho Aye Maung, Yazar Win Tint, and Ohn Lwin of the Burmese band Gita Net Than, pop singer Raymond, and Zaw Min Oo, who became famous after appearing on the “Myanmar Idol” TV program, also died.
Sai Lay, a top pop singer, said the unexpected deaths of young people in the music industry would not have occurred if preparations had been made for the third wave of the COVID-19 virus.
“When these deaths occur, we can do nothing but grieve,” he said. “These deaths would not have come about if we had good health care.”
In the fields of film and theater, the virus claimed Nyunt Win, a veteran film star from the Academy of Performing Arts, famous comedians San Ma Tu and Maung Myittar, and Myanmar orchestra conductors Sayar Gyi and Sein Muttar, who was a two-time Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Award winner.
Comedian Maung Myittar was popular for performing thangyat, a satirical work akin to modern slam poetry that usually includes humorous criticism of politics, society, and the military, during the Thingyan Buddhist New Year. For several years, he had costarred in the “A Kyo Hmyaw, Hno Zaw Baya Zay” weekly features for RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Writer Kyaw Myo Khaing said both the military government and the shadow government comprised of ousted politicians failed to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We’ve just had to watch helplessly,” he said. “The junta government couldn’t do anything, and the National Unity Government in exile could not manage [the situation] effectively.”
“They could only give guidance to people in theory. In the meantime, we’ve just had to stay healthy because no one knows what will happen next,” he added.
Moe Kyaw Thu, chairman of the Myanmar Poets’ Union, said that artists have their work cut out for them replacing the work of lost luminaries.
“We’ve seen a lot of losses in music, art, and literature. From an artistic point of view, it has hurt us a lot. It hurts so much that at some point they will have to restart it all over again, helping one another. They’d have to do it in every sector.”
“We now hear every day about the death of one or two, and then another the next day,” he said.
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