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He Used His Poetry To Speak Out Against Myanmar's Coup. It May Have Cost Him His Life

Myanmar poet Khet Thi died in police custody early last month. Authorities "said he died because of heart disease," his widow Chaw Su says. "But they just beat his head in."
File photo
Myanmar poet Khet Thi died in police custody early last month. Authorities "said he died because of heart disease," his widow Chaw Su says. "But they just beat his head in."

CHIANG RAI, Thailand — Khet Thi made cakes, ice cream and poetry. The latter may have cost him his life.

He died in police custody in Myanmar early last month. The authorities say the cause was heart failure. His widow says he was beaten to death.

A civil engineer by training, the 43-year-old quit his civil service job in the central Myanmar town of Shwebo in 2012 and opened a cake and ice cream shop to support his poetry.

"Before the coup, he wrote poems about love, about life," says his friend Nyein Chan, another poet. "But after, all he wrote about was the revolution."

The revolution is what Nyein Chan calls the resistance to Feb. 1 coup that abruptly ended Myanmar's decade-long experiment with civilian rule. Four months later, that resistance continues to grow. So does the list of civilians killed by security forces.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, an advocacy group, puts the figure at more than 850 — including Khet Thi. Well known in the restive Sagaing region, he wrote perhaps his most famous poem after security forces killed a close friend — another poet — with a bullet to the head in March.

"Khet Thi went to K Za Win's funeral and read his poem at the service," Nyein Chan says. "A lot of people postedthe poem on social media afterwards. It went, 'They shoot in the head, but they don't know the revolution is in the heart.' "

Nyein Chan says his friend's spirit and commitment to the resistance was strong. "For this revolution, I have decided to sacrifice my life," he recalls Khet Thi saying. "Those words showed us his commitment. Now, I feel sad when I recall what he said."

Khet Thi's poetry and his highly visible social media presence may have made him a tempting target for a junta prone to hunting, jailing and killing artists and activists. His widow, Chaw Su, recalls the terrible night they came for him.

"Around 10 p.m., soldiers and police surrounded the house, more than 100 of them," she says. "He attempted to escape, but they caught him. They took him, me and my brother-in-law to a police station and accused us of making bombs. Then we were separated for interrogation."

Eleven hours later, police told her Khet Thi was in a hospital some 60 miles away, in Monywa. "If Khet Thi died, it depends on his karma," she says they told her. She learned her husband was dead after she reached the hospital.

She had to beg them to release the body at the hospital, she says.

"In the morning, I tried to comb his long hair and found his head was badly injured," she says, her voice cracking. "His ribs were badly damaged and his nose was broken, too. They said he died because of heart disease. But they just beat his head in."

When she got her husband's body back, Chaw Su says, there was a long incision in his chest that had been crudely stitched back together. "There is no justice," she declares. "They arrest and kill people like animals, like a cow, or a buffalo. But at least I got his body back. Other families don't even know if their loved ones are still alive or not."

Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, says at least 20 Myanmar families have had similar experiences.

"Actually, they send back that body in order to create a climate of fear," he says. "They want people to know if you are really against them, you will be tortured to death."

It's a tactic that's been honed by Myanmar's military during decades of fighting with ethnic minority militias, and more recently, in the majority heartland. Citizen journalists have posted grim photographs and videos on social media of soldiers or police dragging bodies into vehicles.

Nick Cheesman, a fellow at the Australian National University, calls it "state terror and torture."

"The manner in which the bodies are being used is part of a kind of spectacular violence," Cheesman says. "Spectacular violence which is characteristic of the way that state terror works in Myanmar under the military dictatorship."

State terror, Cheesman writes, wears people down. The targets it does not eliminate, it exhausts. That includes Khet Thi's widow.

"They're watching me," Chaw Su says. "At night, after curfew, they're here around my house. I'm scared. Not just me, but my family members, too."

Still, resistance to the coup isn't abating. And Chaw Su's husband remained defiant until the end. He even suggested that poetry might no longer be sufficient. In his final poem, he wrote:

I can't shoot a gun. I can only create a beautiful cake.

Now my men are being shot. But I can only shoot back with poem.

It is now sure only words from the mouth are not enough.

We have to choose arms. I will shoot.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
Wai Moe