Saints of the
New Millennium
Faith stories of ordinary Catholics in Asia

Catholic sculptor in Myanmar defies adversities with faith

Economic downturns and soaring inflation since the February 2021 coup are causes of concern for Soe Aung
Michael Salai Soe Aung works on a small statue at his home in Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, on Oct.5, 2023.

Michael Salai Soe Aung works on a small statue at his home in Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, on Oct.5, 2023. (Photo: UCA News)

By UCA News reporter

Inside his studio in an alley in Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, sculptor Michael Salai Soe Aung is busy making Christian statues for a living.

Different-sized statues of the Virgin Mary, Divine Mercy, Infant Jesus, Crucifixes, and Catholic saints fill the 46-year-old’s one-room studio, part of his residence in a busy city corner.

“I need to work long hours, including at night when I receive many orders. Sometimes it needs up to three months to finish an eight-foot [2.5 meter] statue,” said the Catholic, as he cleaned a statue cast in gypsum plaster.

Soe Aung came to Mandalay two decades ago from a village in central Myanmar, just like thousands of others who migrate to cities, for an education and a better future.

He earns 500,000 kyats (US$150) a month, on average, selling statues to people all over the country, including Christians from the Mandalay region and Chin state, Myamar's only Christian majority state.

“I have never been rich, but I can fulfill the basic needs of my family including children’s education and food,” he said.

Leaving poverty-stricken childhood

Soe Aung knew the depths of poverty as a child born into a peasant family in the Asho Chin tribe in his Nyaung Bin Thar village in the Magwe division.

His farmer father died when he was eight. As the youngest of nine sons and one daughter, Soe Aung lived in the family home until he moved out to attend Mandalay University.

Some of his brothers are still based in the Magwe region and rely on agriculture for a living. Some have also migrated to Mandalay where they work as private tutors.  

Soe Aung’s family does not own their one-story brick house and the land on which it stands in Mandalay. Soe Aung’s maternal aunt and uncle allowed him and his family to live there.

“I’m grateful to my aunt for allowing us to live on their land.  But my biggest challenge is to have our own land and a house one day,” he says trying to smile.

He says the quiet environment and harmony among his Buddhist-majority neighbors help him carry out his work without any problems.

Neighbors know that Christians need to go to church on Sunday for worship, he said.

“We have mutual respect and understanding,” he said, explaining that when his family goes to visit their home village, they leave the house keys with neighbors who help take care of it.

“Our way of evangelization among Buddhists is by setting a good example, through our simple and quiet living, our daily prayers, and Sunday worship,” Soe Aung says.

Michael Salai Soe Aung is seen with his wife and three sons at his home in Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city on Oct. 1, 2023. (Photo supplied)

Living with collapsed systems

Soe Aung’s monthly income is enough to buy some 65 kilos of rice, the staple for Myanmar's people. A family of six people like his requires at least 15 kilos of rice a month. This means that when he adds the food to go with the rice, more than half of his income is spent on food alone.

But his wife Mai Julie also chips in to help with the education of their four children. The eldest child is 16 years old and the youngest is nine.

Julie, 36, began working soon after their marriage in 2006 and earns around US$60 every month from her cloth design work.

The family prioritizes the education of the children and spends some US$120, which is close to 60 percent of their monthly income, on it.

The eldest son stays in a hostel to study in an English Medium school in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial hub. The others live with their parents and attend a local school.

Soe Aung’s greatest worry is his children not getting a proper education as decades of military rule caused the collapse of the educational system in the country.

“My biggest fear is that my children may not have the education they need to ensure them a bright future,” he says.

There are not enough teachers in the local school as many joined the civil disobedience movement after the coup on Feb. 21, 2021, in which the military deposed the elected government and took power.

“We have to spend on extra private tuition classes after school hours because if they can have a good education it will help them stand on their own feet one day,” he says.

Struggles of life

Soe Aung’s family, which is considered an average Catholic family in the conflict-torn country, struggles to meet their monthly expenses.

“It is a struggle. Whenever I face financial or other difficulties, I go to the Marian grotto in the parish compound to pray,” he said.

His St. John’s parish covered by Mandalay archdiocese has 1,000 Catholics, mostly indigenous people from the Chin, Karen, Kachin, and Bamar communities.

Many Catholics are daily wage workers who are poorer than Soe Aung. A few are civil servants, teachers, and traders.

Soe Aung’s neighborhood is dominated by Buddhists from various Burmese and Chinese ethnic groups.

Like the majority of Burmese, Soe Aung’s family's regular diet includes vegetables and soup accompanied by beef, pork, or chicken.

They have pork curry and a local beer called “Zu” made from sorghum during feasts.

Julie says it is a “happy life” with Soe Aung as her husband.

“As artists, we are in the same boat. So, I face no difficulty in helping my husband,” Julie says.

“The workload does not stress me out.” 

Michael Salai Soe Aung is seen working on a statue of Jesus at his home in Mandalay on Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo: UCA News)

Supportive parish life

The family members, wearing their Sunday best, go to Mass every week at their parish church, located less than a kilometer from their home.

Just like most other men in the parish, Soe Aung wears a long-sleeved shirt and longyi, a sarong-style garment, while women wear a blouse and longyi.

His children go to Sunday class and serve as altar boys in the parish, which Julie says will help them have “faith experiences during and after their childhood.”

“Nowadays many children can’t go to the catechism classes as they are preoccupied with tuition and other social activities on the weekend,” Julie said.

Although a devout Catholic, Soe Aung is not a member of any pious association in the parish. “I cannot afford the time for that. I have to devote time to my studio,” he says.

Sunday is also a day to meet with friends and other parishioners, including those from Soe Aung and Julie’s Asho Chin ethnic Catholic community in the parish.

Faith adapts culture

The Soe Aung family, just like others in their ethnic community, speaks their tribe’s Asho Chin dialect among themselves but uses the Burmese language to communicate with those outside the tribal group.

“Asho Chin people wear traditional costume when there is a special day, such as a relative's priestly ordination or the Chin National Day,” Soe Aung says.

During other festive occasions, men wear shirts and trousers while wrapping themselves in colorful shawls made from a piece of traditional fabric.

During festivals, women wear longyis that are long enough to cover their ankles, and decorated with horizontal stripes, diamonds, or flower designs. They also wear blouses buttoned in the center that have short sleeves with checkered designs along the edge.

They also wear a broad band of silver and bronze wires around their waists.

The Asho Chin tribe is also known as Plain Chin among Burmese-speaking people. They live on the plains of Myanmar, including in the Rakhine and Magway regions, Pegu city, and along the Irrawaddy while some live in Yangon and Mandalay.

There are an estimated 250,000 Asho Chin people in Myanmar, whose daily life and cultural practices are largely influenced by the Burmese majority.

The majority of Asho Chin people follow Buddhism and only 15 percent are estimated to be Christians. At least half of the Christians are Protestants since American Baptist missionaries were the first to work among them in the 19th century.

Michael Salai Soe Aung applies the finishing touches to a statue of Jesus Christ in his studio at his home in Mandalay on Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo: UCA News)

Hope amid challenges

Economic downturns and soaring inflation of more than 28 percent have become causes of concern for Soe Aung.

“Everything has become expensive. Paints and gypsum plaster are expensive now” making statues expensive too, he said.

The political, economic and humanitarian turmoil stemming from the February 2021 coup has plunged millions of people in this Southeast Asian nation into great difficulties.

Soe Aung said he needs to increase the price of his statues by at least 20 percent to avoid financial losses. 

“I continue to get orders from customers. That’s a great relief for me. I can make ends meet.

“I hope God helps us move forward and motivates us no matter how difficult challenges we face,” he says as he gives the finishing touches to his latest statue.

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