musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Mandalay River Tragedy


I was checking e-mail at my shop on Saturday night when I noticed one from my friend Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay. I get notes from her on a fairly frequent basis, but the subject heading in this e-mail instantly made me frown with concern: Bad News

I clicked the message and read what she wrote:

“I have to say to you bad news. Today at 11:00 Hein Htet Zaw’s brother, Baw Ga and Zin Ko go to Irrawaddy river to swim. Their parents didn’t know that. Now, Hein Htet Zaw’s brother was drowned about 12:00. Baw Ga and Zin Ko talked to my aunt about 2:00.”

This was like one of the punches to the gut that leave you gasping for breath. A child dead. But my mind raced: who was it? She said that it was Hein Htet Zaw’s brother, but  I didn’t know that he had a brother. I knew of at least two cousins. Was it one of those boys? When I’m in Mandalay, I always take a group of these kids on a trip somewhere in the area. Baw Ga and Zin Ko are two regulars, both of whom I know very well, so I assumed this “brother” was one of the crew too. But who was the boy who drowned?

I wrote back to Khin Nwe Lwin, expressing my condolences, and asked her the name of this child. She wrote back a couple of hours later and told me:

“His name is Aung Phyo Zaw and he is eleven years old. He is attending six standard in this year. I can’t suffer this feeling, but this is his fate.”

She also attached a photo of her and Aung Phyo Zaw, which I’m posting below. I remember him now. He wasn’t one of the regulars who go on trips with us, but he was one of the kids that I saw around the neighborhood. He’s also one of the bunch that I bought school uniforms for last month.


I can almost picture the scenario. It’s a hot June afternoon. It’s a Saturday, so there is no school to worry about. Someone, maybe Baw Ga or Zin Ko, suggests a swim in the river to break the monotony and beat the heat. They’ve done it so many times before. What’s the big deal? Every time I come to town, these kids want to go swimming somewhere; in the river, a lake, a public swimming pool. It doesn’t matter where; they love to swim. But this time the swimming session turns tragic. I still don’t know all the details. Did the other two boys witness their friend going under the water? If so, did they try and help him? Did Aung Phyo Zaw yell for help? Was there a strong current in the river? I don’t know. All that Khin Nwe Lwin added was one horrifying fact; as of Sunday morning they still had not found the body.

My heart goes out to his family. Is there anything as tragic as the death of a child? I can’t even imagine what these people are feeling. But in addition to his grieving relatives I am especially worried about Baw Ga and Zin Ko. What are they feeling right now? They just witnessed the death of their friend. Are they blaming themselves for their friend’s death? Are other people in the community blaming them? Are they wondering how they could have prevented this from happening? Another image flashes through my mind: Baw Ga and little Zin Ko, shaking with grief, scared and crying, and then having to go to Aung Phyo Zaw’s house and break the news to his mother. And so I really worry about Baw Ga and Zin Ko. They are sweet, sensitive kids and I don’t want this tragedy to devastate them more than normal.

Death is a difficult thing to accept. I certainly don’t deal with it very well. But when I hear things like “it was his fate” or “karma,” or the even more ridiculous “it was God’s will” or “he’s in a better place now” … I just want to scream at such absurd religious nonsense. I know, I know; people take solace in their faith and that helps them to cope with things like death. But to say that such a death is all part of the creator’s master plan or that you should just accept it as fate strikes me as the wrong way to deal with it.

Meanwhile, tonight I will be thinking about my friends on 90th Street in Mandalay. I won’t be muttering any nonsensical prayers, but I will worry about them, and hope they have the strength and support of family and friends to deal with this tragedy.


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