The Thai Who Was a True Friend of Burma

Oct 27, 2010

Thai activist and filmmaker Sam Kalayanee is remembered as a true supporter of Burma’s democracy movement.

A few months ago, Sam posted a collection of photos of his friends and colleagues in Facebook – it included some memorable pictures of Karen refugees, Shan soldiers, landmine victims, film crew. There were portraits of injustice and poverty alongside pictures of Sam laughing and joking and smoking cheroots with his close friends, the student warriors of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) at Thay Baw Boe camp back in 1988.

There were photos of times past, of friends who have long since disappeared. Then there were pictures of those we recognised, 20 years younger.

I saw a picture of myself in his walk down memory lane. It made me smile to see it. But it made me sad, too. The picture was taken on a “solidarity night” we had for East Timor in 1992 held in the late veteran journalist Tiziano Terzani’s house on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. To me, it was more than just a memory. It was a slice of history.

145 One of the last photographs of Sam Kalayanee, taken in February. (Photo credit: Sam Kalayanee Facebook)


I'm sure many of Sam's Facebook friends, including a great many Burmese student activists from 1988 who now live across the globe, spent time browsing through Sam's photos, bringing dusty memories suddenly back to life.

The main founder of Images Asia, Sam Kalayanee was a man who was engaging, energetic and gracious to everyone. I guess it's no coincidence then that he decided to leave some of his memories behind for us to enjoy.

I believe this because he posted so many photos of smiling faces and old friends. He did not post many pictures of the great things that he had personally done. One of the most memorable events in recent history, in my mind, was the visit to Thailand of the Dalai Lama and other Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 1993. Sam Kalayanee was instrumental in organising this visit, the legacy of which still lives on.

Several young Burmese activists were permitted to attend a closed-door meeting at a Bangkok hotel to greet the Dalai Lama who had been granted only a 24-hour visa to the kingdom because of Beijing's protests.

Alongside Desmond Tutu, Oscar Arias, Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire and other former Peace Prize winners, the Dalai Lama had been invited to Thailand to show support for detained fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The visit created a media frenzy despite the Thai government's reluctance to recognize the event.

I still remember Prof Vitit Munthaborn, a prominent human rights lawyer, asking the assembled laureates to raise the “Burma issue” at the United Nations Security Council. Jack Dunford of TBBC informed the laureates about the conditions at the Thai-Burmese border (with the exception of the Dalai Lama, they would all get a first-hand opportunity to see this for themselves). The atmosphere in the room was charged with hope and ambition. And Sam Kalayanee captured it all for the world to see.

Sam never went away even in the dark years when Burma was intransigent  and forgotten  and  seldom made  news  headlines.

Over the years, so many foreign volunteers, friends and philanthropists have come and gone. But Sam never went away even in the dark years when Burma was intransigent and forgotten and seldom made news headlines.

He moved to Chiang Mai where he co-founded Images Asia and learned the trade of film-making. His first accredited role was when he helped produce “Barefoot Student Army” in 1992 with Sophie and Lyndal Barry.

His passion for documentaries never wavered and it is testimony to him that his latest work, “Burma VJ,” which he co-produced, was nominated for an Oscar.

A few weeks ago, I asked Sam whether I could come over to his office and look through his archives. He replied: “Come later. I am sick now.” He never told me how sick he really was. He had cancer. So it was a shock to everyone when he suddenly died a few days ago.

Sam Kalayanee leaves behind more than just gripping documentaries and a Facebook collection of jungle warfare photos. He had several unfinished projects in the pipeline and colleagues who depended on him for guidance. From Shan radio stations to environmental projects in Kachin State, Sam had a hand in their funding and support.

To the exiled Burmese community, Sam leaves behind many fond memories. Much of his work will be preserved so that the next generation will be able to learn what actually happened during those times Manerplaw, malaria, the romance of rebellion, the tragedy of war.

We will never forget Sam for the hand he played – along with his colleagues Sulak Sivaraksa and Gothom Arya from the Student Federation of Thailand – in lobbying the Thai government to desist from repatriating Burmese students and from signing trade deals with the junta. He travelled to Nagaland through India, went to the China border, sneaked into Shan and Karen states and recorded all his escapades in still and motion pictures.

Since 1988, I have met several Thais whom we count as good friends of Burma. They include journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn and politician Kraisak Choonhavan. The regime in Burma openly shows disdain for them and they receive scant support at home.

Sam was in that category. And to a much deeper degree, he was a friend of the Karen people, the Karenni, the Shan and the people from other ethnic groups. He did not care whether he was blacklisted in Burma; he was not afraid to speak out; he knew the risks and he faced them every time; he was uncompromising.

Throughout his long and varied career working with exiled Burmese and ethnic peoples, Sam maintained a humble attitude. He didn't lecture about Burma, the ethnic groups and the issues just because he knew a lot about them. He didn't pretend to be an “expert,” although, in fact, he was.

In Burmese, we use the expression “loke sa” – to exploit or to make personal gain. Sam could never be accused of being loke sa. His heart was in the right place and he followed his instinct with passion.

Sam was always ready to help his friends, especially those who were involved with “the struggle.” In a world where Thais and Burmese are often mutually distrustful, Sam was a man who took care of his neighbors. He was a great and a true friend of Burma. One who will be missed deeply.


This post was originally published in The Irrawaddy in September 2010.