The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyaw Min Yu, Myanmar activist known as Ko Jimmy, executed at 53

Kyaw Min Yu, widely known internationally as Ko Jimmy, and his wife, Nilar Thein, in background, after being released from a prison on Jan. 13, 2012, in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP)
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Kyaw Min Yu, a pro-democracy leader and writer in Myanmar widely known as Ko Jimmy, who rose to prominence in 1988 during protests that helped galvanize political forces opposing military-led regimes for decades to come, was executed with three other activists. He was 53.

In total, Ko Jimmy spent more than 20 years in prison. While detained by the state, which had been under absolute military rule for decades, he worked on literary projects. One surprise bestseller was his translation of a self-help book, which was seen as a manifesto of personal empowerment rare in a country known for its unyielding repression.

Myanmar’s military regime announced that it recently carried out the death sentences, but did not specify when the executions took place at the Insein Prison in Yangon. The junta was strongly denounced by rights groups and governments around the world. But the country’s rulers remained defiant as they seek to crush dissent and political allies of ousted civilian leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar's military junta said July 25 that it had executed four pro-democracy activists. The announcement sparked international condemnation. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ko Jimmy had been in activism the longest among the group put to death, possibly hanged but authorities did not immediately confirm the execution method. Also killed was former hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, who became a parliament member and top aide to Suu Kyi.

In 1988, Ko Jimmy was studying physics at Rangoon Arts & Sciences University, now the University of Yangon, as protests flared around the country after a snap decision by the ruling party that made many bank notes worthless. After the unrest forced the resignation of strongman Gen. Ne Win that July, student groups set plans for a major demonstration calling for greater freedoms under the brutal one-party state.

Crowds at the university and elsewhere gathered on Aug. 8, 1988, sometimes called the 8888 Uprising. The movement quickly spread to other parts of Myanmar, then known as Burma, joined by laborers, shopkeepers, doctors and Buddhist monks.

Ko Jimmy was among the leading figures of the “88 Generation” in demonstrations that would become a crucible for many pro-democracy activists including Suu Kyi. Ko Jimmy, a student union leader, emerged as a key political organizer and helped anti-regime activists build a network that lasted for years.

Ko Jimmy’s influence on Myanmar’s pro-democracy factions was amplified by his resilience during years in prison since the late 1980s. He wrote a series of politically themed stories — usually with a protagonist fighting for rights and freedoms — including some published in Japan under the pen name Pan Pu Lwin Pyin.

While jailed from 2007 to 2012, he drafted a novel “The Moon in Inle Lake,” a story about an official facing quandaries about state power and policies as he falls for a woman with a business and political background near Myanmar’s picturesque Inle Lake. “For me it’s art that makes my life tolerable,” Ko Jimmy said at the book launch in 2012 in Yangon. “I sang and wrote poetry when my life was rough in prison.”

An earlier project, a translation of Andrew Matthews’s 1990 book “Making Friends,” became a hit in Myanmar — due more to the subtext of individual freedoms than the actual advice of how to garner new pals.

“Ko Jimmy was, in a sense, an educator for democracy,” said Ingrid Jordt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who has conducted research in Myanmar since 1988. “It was having the freedom to make contacts, speak openly, act differently. This remains a powerful message in Myanmar.”

The book begins: “Most people are more afraid than you. Have you ever scared someone? Many people seem calm and confident because they do something comforting, but in reality they are scared.”

“These lines must have struck a chord in 2005,” Jordt said, “when people were regularly being forbidden from associating in groups of more than five people. At the time, simply taking tea in a tea shop was cause for fear that you might be overheard in your conversation by military intelligence.”

He also did translations of books censored by Myanmar’s regime including Dan Brown’s bestsellers “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons.”

Before his execution, Myanmar’s junta accused him of threatening “public tranquility” with social media posts criticizing the military coup last year that toppled Suu Kyi’s civilian-led administration. The regime further claimed Ko Jimmy headed a group called the Moon Light Operation that carried out urban guerrilla attacks.

Ko Jimmy’s wife and former jailed political activist, Nilar Thein, denied the allegations against her husband. Following a closed trial, he was sentenced to death in January.

“He has written a good record for himself and he will never die in our hearts,” she told Radio Free Asia on Friday before his execution.

Ko Jimmy was born Feb. 13, 1969, in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state, which includes Inle Lake.

During one speech at the height of the 1988 protests, Ko Jimmy recalled looking out on the crowd and noticing a girl in a white-and-green school uniform. The image stuck with him.

The 1988 protests were crushed after about five weeks with a military coup. Ko Jimmy was arrested and sentenced in 1989 to hard labor.

Word reached Ko Jimmy one day in prison about a new inmate, Nilar Thein, who turned out to be the same student in the school uniform he saw in the crowd. He asked a guard if he could send her a message.

“A few words, a few words,” he told NPR’s Snap Judgment program in 2014.

But Thein was unwell with a heart ailment and placed in a special cell without much contact with others, he said.

“She was very lonely, very lonely,” he said in the 2014 interview.

Ko Jimmy finally persuaded a guard to let them meet. They were then allowed more contact. “We fall in love,” he said.

There were both released in 2004 and soon married. Their daughter Phyu Nay Kyi Min Yu, whom they nicknamed “Sunshine,” was born just months before 2007’s “Saffron revolution,” widespread protests led by Buddhist monks after fuel prices nearly doubled.

Ko Jimmy and his wife joined the marches. He was arrested during a bloody backlash by authorities. His wife went into hiding with their infant daughter, but was tracked down in 2008. She was jailed and the girl was raised by a grandmother until the couple was pardoned in a 2012 amnesty.

He often called prison their “second home.”

Survivors include Nilar Thein and their daughter.

Since early 2021, Ko Jimmy constantly shifted locations to avoid authorities. During his arrest in October, he was injured trying to scale a fence topped with barbed wire, his wife said.

“We just want democracy,” he said in the 2014 interview. “We just want truth.”