Friday, December 2, 2022

Our worst fears have come true in Myanmar

We apologized to our baby daughter before she was born.
My husband, Kyaw Min Yu, a writer and activist known across Myanmar as Ko Jimmy, would lean down to my swollen belly, recite Buddhist mantras of love and say we’re sorry for the life we had chosen. We had spent years campaigning for a democratic Myanmar, were repeatedly imprisoned for that, and were painfully aware that our little girl, Phyu Nay Kyi Min Yu, whom we nicknamed Whitey (“Phyu” means white in Burmese), would not enjoy a normal childhood.
Fifteen years later, our worst fears have come true. My husband is dead, executed in July by Myanmar’s military junta, which overthrew a democratically elected civilian government and seized power in February of last year. I am now on the run, separated from my daughter.
Myanmar is in chaos. Thousands of people have been killed or arrested and more than one million displaced in a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. The military is waging a scorched-earth offensive to terrorize the people and erase the democratic progress painstakingly achieved over the years. Executing Ko Jimmy, a prominent figure in the struggle for democracy for three decades, was part of that strategy.
But the generals will fail. Myanmar has traveled too far down the road to freedom. Millions of determined young people who have grown up tasting democracy and have access to the internet won’t accept being dragged back to the dark days when the junta reigned supreme.
The corrupt military, known as the Tatmadaw, first seized power in 1962 and kept the country oppressed, isolated and backward. In 1988, Ko Jimmy (“Ko” means “brother” in Burmese) was a student leader in pivotal protests that, although violently suppressed, gave birth to a new generation committed to democracy.
We paid dearly for it: My husband — like thousands of others — was arrested and imprisoned from 1988 to 2005. For the last nine of those years, he and I were held in the notorious prison at Tharrawaddy. Beaten and abused, we grew close and cared for each other as best we could, passing secret notes through the iron bars to keep our spirits up. I loved his unshakable commitment to the fight, his poetry and how deeply he cared for others and his country. We were both released in 2005, married a year later, and I became pregnant.
As expected, it would be no ordinary upbringing for Whitey. I badly wanted to breastfeed — to nurture her and feel that close mother-child bond. Instead, we introduced baby formula early in case I was arrested. When Whitey was just four months old, her father was arrested again and imprisoned for another five years.
I went into hiding with Whitey, moving between safe houses, sometimes through torrential downpours in the dark of night. At one point we hid with several other activists in the storage room of a house. As police searched the house for us one day, we whispered to Whitey, distracting her so that she would not make any noises that might give us away and tear us apart. She stayed quiet and the police left.
But this was no life for a baby. Brokenhearted, I entrusted her to my in-laws in 2007. I was arrested the following year. Whitey’s father and I would not be released again until 2012.
By then, things were gradually improving. The military implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms and the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a crushing electoral victory in 2015. The generals still held significant power, but many in Myanmar enjoyed relatively better and freer lives. Hopes were raised that real, lasting democracy was finally within our grasp. It seemed that all the years in prison had not been in vain.
It all came crashing down in the military coup last year.
But the generals have gravely miscalculated. The people have responded to the junta’s brutality with courage and defiance. Protests continue, and thousands have taken up arms, some sheltering among the several ethnic armed groups that have long resisted the junta and control large expanses of the country. Even Whitey, now a teenager, is old enough to comprehend the military’s inhumanity: She wrote a school essay last year reflecting on how the defiant reaction to the coup had made her proud of her parents. Part of me wanted to smile, but part of me wanted to scream that she has had to experience this.
In July our world fell apart. The generals called Ko Jimmy a terrorist and filed bogus charges that he had planned guerrilla attacks. He was convicted in a closed-door trial by a kangaroo court and executed along with three other pro-democracy activists. He was 53. The junta has not returned his body to us. The executions were the first by the military in more than three decades, making clear the generals’ intention to drag Myanmar back to its brutal past.
Yet the world seems to barely notice. The United States has denounced the coup and the executions, but Myanmar needs more than rhetorical support. President Biden will meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at an annual summit this weekend in Cambodia. We will probably hear the usual calls for ASEAN — of which Myanmar is a member — to bring more pressure to bear on the junta.
But ASEAN has never been able to bring the generals to heel, and dealing with them bestows legitimacy on their illegal coup. Instead — while recognizing the limits of foreign pressure on an isolated military junta — Western countries like the United States, European nations and others that support democracy must start by urgently and aggressively taking up the cause of Myanmar’s people and ensure that any efforts to restore democracy are guided not by ineffectual ASEAN — but by the civilian leaders of Myanmar who were chosen by the people.
Widowed, I am in hiding again, separated once more from my daughter for her safety. Our troubles are not uncommon. Hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar have lost loved ones, have been torn from homes and families, have lost livelihoods or have left everything behind to join the resistance. To those people I say: You are not alone. We stand together and will restore our democracy. There is no going back.
By Nilar Thein
(Ms. Nilar Thein is a Myanmar democracy activist).

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