The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Myanmar political prisoner Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, and his wife, Nilar Thein, who is holding their child, celebrate upon their arrival at Yangon International Airport after their release from detention in January 2012. Ko Jimmy was arrested again in October after the military seized power in February 2021. (Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — It started with a letter, tightly folded and delivered in secret.

She was 24, imprisoned in Myanmar for attending protests against the military’s authoritarian regime. He was 25, a third of his way through a 20-year sentence for mobilizing student activists against the junta. He wrote to her first, saying he admired her refusal to sign a letter vowing obedience to the military in exchange for her freedom. She responded in kind, saying she had liked a political speech he’d delivered in the city of Yangon. They courted through poems and glances stolen during chance meetings in the visiting room. In between stints in and out of prison, they married and had a daughter.

The romance that Nilar Thein had with her husband, Kyaw Min Yu, who is also known as Ko Jimmy, persisted through coups and revolutions, death threats and periods of separation, she told The Washington Post. It lasted 26 years until last week, when the Myanmar military executed Ko Jimmy alongside three other pro-democracy activists. He was 51.

The executions, which mark the first time in more than 30 years that Myanmar carried out the death penalty, has sent human rights activists reeling, elicited international condemnation and dramatically escalated tensions in the country’s ongoing civil war, advocates say. But the loss of Ko Jimmy, announced in four paragraphs in a state-run newspaper, also cut short a love story that had endured decades of political strife — a relationship that had been intertwined from the start with the ebbs and flows of Myanmar’s faltering democracy effort.

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“Ko Jimmy was my comrade, my leader, my husband,” Nilar Thein, 50, said last week from Myanmar, where she’s been hiding in an undisclosed location. “For our daughter, above all, he was a wonderful father.”

“What this regime did, their brutality — I can’t describe it. Ko Jimmy’s case was only one of many.”

Once heralded as an example of democratic progress, Myanmar has slid back into crisis since the military violently seized power in February 2021. Veteran activists who helped to push for the country’s brief period of liberalization under Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have found themselves back in hiding or behind bars.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested over the past two years, and at least 100 have been sentenced to death in closed-door trials, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Myanmar nonprofit that tracks these figures. Seventy-six of those on death row are in military custody and the vast majority are young civilians who attended anti-military demonstrations, according to the AAPP.

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

In June, authorities announced they planned to execute him together 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 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 about the executed men 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 and humid afternoon outside a political party headquarters in downtown Yangon. Ko Jimmy was standing next to Suu Kyi, delivering a speech; Nilar Thein was in the audience, dressed in a green and white school uniform.

“I really liked his speech,” she remembered, smiling. “It was dedicated and clear, the kind of speech a leader would give.”

Ko Jimmy was arrested soon after that day. Nilar Thein said she didn’t hear from him again until she landed in prison herself and received his note, slipped 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 about the banned-book club that he was organizing from his cell. He wrote her postmodern poems — written in free verse, which she had never read before — and taught her how to write her own. One day, he pleaded with prison guards for a few moments with her in person so he could bring her medicine, food, books — and ask her to marry him.

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

She will be crying, quiet and hard
Tears falling out of the sight of anyone
Like an ordinary woman
I know, know in my heart
She will be missing me and our daughter
Digging into the past, yearning
For maybe the happiness of a mountain or
Maybe the happiness of an ocean
— English translation of "Fleur-de-lis," a poem 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 to spur a nationwide campaign against the military in the 1990s. This marked the start of the couple’s longest stretch of freedom together, though as Myanmar began to liberalize, their activism drew them to different parts of the country and kept them apart for long periods of time.

As the years passed, they began to crave a more peaceful life. They wanted more time to spend with their daughter, to read and to write poetry. After the 2020 election, when Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy coasted to a decisive win, the couple agreed that they’d take a step back from public life.

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

In March 2021, Nilar Thein was volunteering at a covid-19 clinic for Buddhist monks when Ko Jimmy paid her a visit. The country was on edge. Just days earlier, a 19-year-old girl had been shot in the head while attending a protest in the central city of Mandalay. Ko Jimmy, who had already been on the lam for a few weeks, told his wife the situation was only going to worsen. They agreed they wouldn’t leave Myanmar but stay, as they always had, and fight. They also made a pact, Nilar Thein recounted: If they were to be arrested again, they’d try to die by suicide before being tortured. It would be their last protest against the military, they said.

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

The next time she saw her husband, it was in a mug shot released by the military. He was in a pale blue prison uniform, his arms limp by his side and his face gaunt. She wept when she saw the image, she said.

“That’s when I knew he didn’t get a chance,” she paused, her voice wavering. “Ko Jimmy didn’t have a chance to die by suicide as we’d agreed before.”

More than a week after the executions, prison officials still have not allowed family members to see the bodies or the remains of the four men who were killed. Until they do so, Nilar Thein said, she won’t hold a funeral for her husband or completely accept that he’s gone. This comes from a distrust of the military and not from blind faith, she said. Nonetheless, it ekes open a door for her to hope.

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

Aung Naing Soe reported from Thailand.