The executions in Myanmar put an end to the love story of activists Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein

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SINGAPORE – It started with a letter, neatly folded and secretly delivered.

She was 24, incarcerated in Myanmar for participating in protests against the military’s authoritarian regime. She was 25, a third of her 20-year sentence for mobilizing student activists against the junta. She wrote her first, saying that she admired her refusal to sign a letter of oath of obedience to the military in exchange for her freedom. She responded politely, saying that she enjoyed a political speech she gave in Yangon city. They wooed each other through poems and stolen glances during casual encounters in the visiting room. Between stints in and out of prison, they got married and had a daughter.

The romance that Nilar Thein had with her husband, Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, has continued through coups and revolutions, death threats and periods of separation., he told the Washington Post. It lasted 26 years until last week, when the Myanmar military executed Ko Jimmy along with three other pro-democracy activists. hey what 51

The executions, which mark the first time in more than 30 years that Myanmar has carried out the death penalty, has swayed human rights activists, sparked international condemnation and dramatically escalated tensions in the country’s ongoing civil war, supporters say. But the loss of Ko Jimmy, announced in four paragraphs in a state newspaper, also disrupted a romance that had withstood decades of political strife, a relationship that had been intertwined from the start with the ebb and flow of the faltering. democracy of Myanmar. effort.

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“Ko Jimmy was my partner, my leader, my husband,” said Nilar Thein, 50, from Myanmar last week, where she hid in an unfamiliar place. “For our daughter, above all, he was a wonderful father.”

“What this regime did, their brutality, I cannot describe. Ko Jimmy’s case was just one of many. “

Once heralded as an example of democratic progress, Myanmar is back in crisis since the military seized power violently in February 2021. Veteran activists who helped push for the country’s short-term liberalization under the award’s leadership Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi found themselves back in hiding or behind bars.

More than a thousand people have been arrested in the past two years and at least a hundred have been sentenced to death in closed-door trials, according to the Association of Assistance for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Myanmar nonprofit that tracks of these figures. Seventy-six of the death row inmates are in military custody and the vast majority are young civilians who have participated in anti-military demonstrations, according to the AAPP.

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

In June, authorities announced plans to execute him along with Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former member of parliament, and two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw. International agencies, foreign governments and human rights groups have begged the military to exercise restraint; Nilar Thein warned that if her husband died, the military leaders would “take full responsibility”.

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

The first time Nilar Thein glimpsed her future husband, she recalled, they were both just teenagers. It was a bright, humid afternoon outside a political party headquarters in downtown Yangon. Ko Jimmy was standing next to Suu Kyi as she delivered a speech; Nilar Thein was in the audience, dressed in a green and white school uniform.

“I really enjoyed your speech,” he recalled, smiling. “It was dedicated and clear, the kind of speech a leader would make.”

Ko Jimmy was arrested soon after that day. Nilar Thein said she never heard from him again until she landed in prison herself and received her ticket from her, slipped her from a network of allies. In nine years and hundreds of letters, she told her about the place where she had grown up, near a huge lake in the Shan Hills, and about the forbidden book club she was organizing from her cell. She wrote her postmodern poems – written in free verse, which she had never read before her – and taught her to write her own. One day, he pleaded with the prison guards for a few moments with her in person so that he could bring her medicine, food, books and ask her to marry him.

In 2005, after being released from prison early, the couple married, had a daughter and named her Sunshine. But when Sunshine was 4 months old, Ko Jimmy was arrested again. Nilar Thein hid, hopping from one dingy apartment to another with her baby. Within months, Nilar Thein said, her officials found and arrested her, separating her from her daughter.

She will cry, silent and hard

Tears that fall from anyone’s sight

Like a normal woman

I know, I know in my heart

She will miss me and our daughter

Dig into the past desire

For perhaps the happiness of a mountain or

Perhaps the happiness of an ocean

– English translation of “Fleur-de-lis”, a poem that Ko Jimmy wrote from prison for Nilar Thein when he was imprisoned for the second time in 2007

In 2012, both Nilar Thein and Ko Jimmy were released as part of amnesties granted to veterans of the 1988 student activist movement, which had helped spur a national campaign against the military in the 1990s. This marked the beginning of the couple’s longest period of freedom together, although as Myanmar began to liberalize, their activism took them to different parts of the country and kept them apart for long periods of time.

As the years went by, they began to long for a more peaceful life. They wanted more time to spend with their daughter, reading and writing poetry. After the 2020 election, when Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy took a decisive victory, the couple agreed to step back from public life.

They had just begun to settle down when the military regained power.

In March 2021, Nilar Thein was volunteering at a covid-19 clinic for Buddhist monks when Ko Jimmy visited her. The country was on the edge. A few days earlier, a 19-year-old girl had been shot in the head while participating in a protest in the central city of Mandalay. Ko Jimmy, who had already been on the run for a few weeks, told his wife that the situation would only get worse. They agreed that they would not leave Myanmar but would stay, as they always have, and fight. They also made a deal, Nilar Thein said: if they were arrested again, they would try to commit suicide before being tortured. It would be their last protest against the military, they said.

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“He said to me, ‘Look, these young people are sacrificing their lives. I have already lived for more than 50 years. That’s more than enough ‘”, Nilar Thein recalled.”‘ I don’t mind dying ‘, that’s what he told me. “

The next time she saw her husband, he was shot in a mug issued by the military. He wore a blue prison uniform, his arms limp at his sides and a gaunt face. He cried when she saw the picture, he said.

“At that moment I knew he had no chance,” she stopped, her voice trembling. “Ko Jimmy didn’t get the chance to commit suicide, as we agreed before.”

More than a week after the executions, prison officials still have 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 that he is gone. This stems from a distrust of the military and not from blind faith, she said. However, she opens a door for her to hope for.

Maybe someday, when she’s safe, she’ll go home to the books she and Ko Jimmy have collected over the course of their lives, she thinks to herself. Maybe one day she will walk through the front door with the sun and hear him singing in the kitchen instead of her.

Aung Naing Soe reports from Thailand.