Maung Maung Tinn is an unlikely philanthropist.
He fled his village in eastern Burma 13 years ago; after his parents died and when, as he tells it, he could no longer handle the sadness. He wandered into the jungle. Some KNU rebel soldiers found him there, crying and singing, alone.
“Singing doesn’t always mean you’re happy,” he says.
The KNU soldiers helped him cross the border into Thailand where he worked in a clinic for refugees and started devoting himself to painting.
Now 39, Maung Maung finishes a painting about every month. He has a style of his own, soft, understated watercolors, always of people, always precise in expression. He sells some of them, to NGO workers or travelers, and uses others for exhibitions.
He puts together calendars and just printed a book. He uses the money he earns to pay for schools for Burma’s displaced children, to fund orphanages or to pay the rent for H.I.V. patients who can no longer work.
“I try to help wherever I can,” he said. “I can’t run a big project, I’m not an NGO, but if someone needs something and I can help, I help.”
Maung Maung’s next exhibition will be in Italy. But the artist won’t be attending. Maung Maung has no passport, and with the reputation he’s earned with his work, has little hope of the Burmese government issuing him one. At this point it’s too risky for him even to go back into the country.
“I am not political,” he told me. But his paintings – of displaced Burmese villagers, deported migrant workers and children sleeping on the streets – would beg to differ.
Maung Maung led me into his sparse home yesterday, on the side of the highway to Burma. We sat on the floor, and he told me pieces of his life.
He looked a fragile man.
His face was thin, his skin sallow and his eyes pained with history – his, and that of his homeland. Sometimes they misted over when he stared into space. Sometimes they flashed with color when he talked about his home. Sometimes they drained of feeling entirely.
He gets homesick. Mostly at night, he says, when he’s alone. Sometimes at big parties when everyone is with their families and happy.
He’s been encouraged by various NGO workers and friends to resettle as a refugee in a third country. But he probably never will. He says he couldn’t stand to put any more distance between his heart and his home.
Instead he will stay to try to paint a better future for his country. His goal is to spread awareness, he says, so that the world will know and be shocked by the realities of life in today’s Burma.
But more immediately, Maung Maung’s aim is to help the refugees coming daily across the border, to whom life has been anything but fair.
He boils it down to a concentrate of kindness.
“I want to do something good – it doesn’t matter, big or small – before I die.”
Click here to see a gallery of Maung Maung Tinn’s work: http://www.burmesepaintings.org/index.htm
Maung Maung Tinn