CHIANG RAI, Thailand – Khet Thi made cakes, ice cream and poetry. The latter may have cost him his life.
He died in custody in Myanmar early last month. 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 Shwebo, central Myanmar, 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 afterwards, he wrote only about the revolution.”
The revolution is what Nyein Chan calls resistance to the February 1 coup that abruptly ended Myanmar’s decade of experience with civilian rule. Four months later, this resistance continues to grow. The same is true of the list of civilians killed by the security forces.
The Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners of Burma, a rights group, estimates the figure at more than 850, including Khet Thi. Well known in the troubled Sagaing region, he wrote perhaps his most famous poem after security forces shot dead a close friend – another poet – to the head in March.
“Khet Thi went to K Za Win’s funeral and read his poem at the service,” Nyein Chan said. “A lot of people posted the poem on social media afterwards. It said, ‘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 decided to sacrifice my life,” he recalls, saying Khet Thi. “Those words showed us his commitment. Now I feel sad when I remember what he said.”
Khet Thi’s poetry and his highly visible social media presence may have made him a tempting target for a junta inclined to hunt, imprison and kill artists and activists. His widow, Chaw Su, remembers the terrible night they came to pick him up.
“Around 10 pm, soldiers and police surrounded the house, more than a hundred,” she says. “He tried to escape, but they caught him. They took me and my brother-in-law to a police station and accused us of making bombs. Then we were separated for questioning.
Eleven hours later, the police told him that Khet Thi was in a hospital about 100 kilometers away in Monywa. “If Khet Thi is dead, it depends on his karma,” she said, they told him. She learned that her husband had died after arriving at the hospital.
She had to beg them to release the body to the hospital, she said.
“In the morning, I tried to comb her long hair and found that her head was badly injured,” she said, her voice broken. “His ribs were badly damaged and his nose was also broken. They said he died from heart disease. But they just hit his head.”
When she retrieved her husband’s body, Chaw Su said, there was a long incision in her chest that had been roughly stitched up. “There is no justice,” she said. “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 Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners, says at least 20 Burmese families have had similar experiences.
“In fact, they are sending this body away in order to create a climate of fear,” he says. “They want people to know that if you are really against them, you will be tortured to death.”
It’s a tactic that has been honed by the Burmese military over decades of fighting with ethnic minority militias, and more recently, in the hearts of the majority. Citizen journalists have posted grim photographs and videos of soldiers or police dragging bodies in vehicles on social media.
Nick Cheesman, a fellow of the Australian National University, calls it “state terror and torture”.
“The way the bodies are used is part of a spectacular kind of violence,” Cheesman explains. “Spectacular violence that characterizes the functioning of state terror in Myanmar under the military dictatorship.”
State terror, writes Cheesman, wears people down. The targets, he does not eliminate, he exhausts them. This includes Khet Thi’s widow.
“They are looking at me,” said Chaw Su. “At night, after curfew, they’re here around my house. I’m scared. Not just me, but my family as well.”
However, resistance to the coup did not weaken. And Chaw Su’s husband remained rebellious until the end. He even suggested that poetry might not be enough anymore. In his last poem, he writes:
I can’t shoot a gun. I can only create a beautiful cake.
Now my men are getting shot. But I can only retaliate with a poem.
It is now certain that words of mouth alone are not enough.
We have to choose the weapons. I will shoot.