YANGON, Myanmar— In his teens, Aung Soe fell in love with reading about figures who shaped history. He read about the notorious, like Joseph Stalin, a strongman of the former Soviet Union, and was taken by the lives of the inspiring, like Vietnamese nationalist and revolutionary Ho Chi Minh.
At 15, the avid reader came across a few paragraphs in his school textbook about Filipino Jose Rizal, the intellectual, writer and doctor, martyred for resisting the oppressive Spanish rule through his writings.
His curiosity piqued, Aung Soe sought out Rizal’s work and came across the Philippine national hero’s final letter, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” a farewell to his motherland on the eve of his execution on Dec. 30, 1896.
Now, many decades later, it has become Aung Soe’s mission to translate Rizal’s final work into his native language, hoping to share the hero’s message to his countrymen, especially the young.
“I remember Jose Rizal as a young man. Rizal is a hero of the young people,” Aung Soe, a prominent lawyer, writer, film director and advocate told ABS-CBN News.
Aung Soe’s fascination with Rizal’s life was recently rekindled when he visited Manila in April for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Intellectual Property Association, where he is counsellor.
On a side trip to the Rizal Shrine in Fort Santiago, he saw Rizal’s last words magnified and set in stone in several languages.
“But there is none in Burmese (Myanmar language). So now, I will try to translate it in Myanmar language. The objective is to have it in stone,” Aung Soe said.
He said he aims to finish the translation by September.
“We can work between governments, I can raise funds to set it in stone. And then I want to donate it to the museum,” he said in halting English, taking questions through a translator.
For Aung Soe, Rizal’s final poem stands out among all his works as it served as a prelude to the hero’s final moments, when he bravely faced the firing line, standing up to conquerors until his last breath.
“Only prisoners are shot in the back. They try to give up. But Rizal was standing, he wanted to meet his death face to face. It’s a hero’s behavior. He turned and looked up the Philippine sky,” he said, his face in awe, as if seeing the scene before him.
“That’s a very tragic and wonderful story for me. I see hero’s blood in Jose Rizal,” he added.
Aung Soe felt a natural affinity with Rizal as he drew parallels between the Filipino’s life and that of Myanmar nationalist Aung San, leader of the Burmese independence movement assassinated in July 1947. Just as Rizal led the resistance against Spanish occupation, Aung San fought against his country’s foreign rulers, the British.
“His life looks like [that of] our leader Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. He was also assassinated,” he said.
“I am not a Filipino, but I feel like a Filipino. This is humanism and kindness… Because Asian countries were mostly colonies, we are all the same. We’re on the same boat,” he said.
Aung Soe has begun a personal campaign to teach his compatriots about Rizal whenever he gets the chance.
Frequently invited to speak in public gatherings, Aung Soe shared about Rizal’s life at a poets’ event last month.
“I included the life of Jose Rizal… All the poets applauded. They’re very glad,” he said.
“And everywhere I go, every chance I get, I talk about Rizal,” he added.
Aung Soe is currently reading a compilation of Rizal’s letters, a book he took home as a souvenir from Manila.
“I promise to you now, if I have the chance, I will share his life to young people. Our duty is to make them interested in the life of Jose Rizal,” said Aung Soe, who refused to reveal his age, only saying he is “more than 30.”
For Aung Soe, learning about the past is the key to a successful future.
“Everybody should know about heroes of any country. My message to young people is to share, have knowledge about leaders of Asia and the world. Only then can we see more and more development,” he said.