A love story forged in Myanmar’s political strife ends in execution

Junta leaders issued an arrest warrant for Ko Jimmy, one of Myanmar’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, weeks after the democratically elected government was ousted. Charged with threatening “public calm” with his criticism of the military, Ko Jimmy evaded arrest until October when he was caught climbing a fence topped with barbed wire, Nilar Thein said.

Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold up pictures of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok.

Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold up pictures of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok.Recognition:AP

In June, the authorities announced they planned to execute him along with Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former MP, and two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw. International organizations, foreign governments and human rights groups have implored the military to exercise restraint; Nilar Thein warned that if her husband died, military leaders “would bear full responsibility”.

They went ahead.

“We had nothing personal with them,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said of the executed men last week. “Their actions,” he added, “should always be sentenced to death.”

When Nilar Thein first saw her husband-to-be, she recalled they were both teenagers. It was a bright and muggy afternoon outside the headquarters of a political party in downtown Yangon. Ko Jimmy stood next to Suu Kyi and gave a speech; Nilar Thein was in the audience, dressed in a green and white school uniform.

“I really enjoyed his speech,” she recalls with a smile. “It was engaging and clear, the kind of speech an executive would give.”

Activists from the international human rights organization Amnesty hold banners reading

Activists from the international human rights organization Amnesty hold banners reading “No to the death penalty” as they protested outside Italy’s foreign ministry in Rome in June.Recognition:AP

Ko Jimmy was arrested shortly after that day. Nilar Thein said she didn’t hear from him until she herself ended up in jail and received his message, which was leaked to her through a network of allies. Over nine years and hundreds of letters, he told her about the place where he grew up, near a huge lake in the Shan Hills, and the forbidden book club he organized from his cell. He wrote her postmodern poetry – written in free verse she had never read before – and taught her how to write her own. One day he personally begged the prison guards with her for a few moments so he could bring her medicine, food and books – and asked her to marry him.

In 2005, after parole, the couple married and had a daughter, naming her Sunshine. But when Sunshine was four months old, Ko Jimmy was arrested again. Nilar Thein hid and hopped from one dingy apartment to another with her toddler. Within months, she said, officers found and arrested her and separated her from her daughter.

In 2012, both Nilar Thein and Ko Jimmy were released as part of amnesties granted to veterans of the 1988 student activist movement who had helped spur a nationwide campaign against the military in the 1990s. This was the beginning of the couple’s longest journey of freedom together, although their activism drew them to different parts of the country as Myanmar’s liberalization began, separating them for a long time.

As the years passed, they began to yearn for a more peaceful life. They wanted to spend more time with their daughter, read and write poetry. After the 2020 election, when Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy won a decisive victory, the couple agreed to retire from public life.

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They had just started to settle down when the military retook power.

In March 2021, Nilar Thein was volunteering at a COVID-19 clinic for Buddhist monks when Ko Jimmy visited them. The country was nervous. Just days earlier, a 19-year-old girl was shot in the head while taking part in a demonstration in downtown Mandalay. Ko Jimmy, who had been on the run for several weeks, told his wife the situation was only going to get worse. They agreed not to leave Myanmar but to stay as they had always done and fight. They also made a pact, said Nilar Thein: If they were arrested again, they would try to kill themselves before they were tortured. It would be their last protest against the military, they said.

“He said to me, ‘You see, these young people are giving their lives. I’ve been alive for more than 50 years. That’s more than enough’”, Nilar Thein recalls. “‘I don’t mind dying’ — that’s what he told me.”

The next time she saw her husband, it was in a mugshot released by the military. He wore a pale blue prison uniform, his arms hung limp at his sides, and his face was gaunt. She cried when she saw the picture.

“I knew then that he wouldn’t get a chance,” she paused, her voice shaking. “Ko Jimmy didn’t have a chance to die by suicide as we agreed beforehand.”

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More than a week after the executions, prison officials still had not allowed family members to see the bodies or remains of the four men killed. Until they do, Nilar Thein said she will not hold a funeral for her husband, nor will she fully accept his absence. This comes from a distrust of the military and not blind faith, she said. Still, it opens a door of hope for her.

Maybe one day, when it’s safe, she’ll return home to the books she and Ko Jimmy have collected over their lives, she thinks. Maybe one day she’ll walk through the front door with Sunshine and hear him singing from his seat in the kitchen.

The Washington Post

https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/a-love-story-forged-in-myanmars-political-strife-ends-in-execution-20220809-p5b8fv.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_world A love story forged in Myanmar’s political strife ends in execution

Joel McCord

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