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. Authorities say the cause was heart failure. His widow says he was killed.
A graduate civil engineer graduated, the 43-year-old quit his job in central Myanmar city of Shwebo in 2012 and opened a cake and ice cream shop in support of his poetry.
“Before the coup, he wrote poems about love, about life,” says his friend Nyein Chan, another poet. “But after all, everything he wrote about was the revolution.”
The revolution is what Nyein Chan calls the resistance to a February 1 coup that suddenly 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, a lawyer group, puts the number 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,” says Nyein Chan. “Many people posted the poem on social media afterwards. It went: ‘They shoot in the head, but they do not know that 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. “Those words showed us his commitment. Now I’m sorry when I remember what he said.”
Khet This poetry and his very visible presence on social media may have made him a tempting target for a junta who tends to hunt, jail and kill artists and activists. His widow, Chaw Su, recalls the horrible night they came for him.
“Around 10 p.m., soldiers and police surrounded the house, more than 100 of them,” she says. “He tried 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 questioning.”
Eleven hours later, police told her that Khet Thi was in a hospital about 60 miles away in Monywa. “If Khet Thi died, it depends on his karma,” she says they told her. She learned that her husband was dead after she came to 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 that his head was badly wounded,” she says, and her voice cracks. “His ribs were badly damaged and his nose was also broken. They said he died of heart disease. But they just hit his head.”
When she got her husband’s body back, says Chaw Su, there was a long incision in her chest that had been roughly sewn 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.
“In fact, they send the body back to create a climate of fear,” he says. “They want people to know if you’re really against them, you’ll be tortured to death.”
It is a tactic that has been honed by Myanmar’s military for decades fighting ethnic minority militias and recently in the majority of the heart. Citizen journalists have posted grim photographs and videos on social media of soldiers or police pulling bodies into vehicles.
Nick Cheesman, a fellow at the Australian National University, calls it “state terror and torture.”
“The way the corpses are used is part of a kind of spectacular violence,” Cheesman says. “Spectacular violence that is characteristic of the way in which state terror works in Myanmar during the military dictatorship.”
State terror, writes Cheesman, breaks people down. The goals it does not eliminate, it exhausts. It includes Khet This widow.
“They keep an eye on me,” says Chaw Su. “In the evening after the curfew, they are here around my house. I’m scared. Not only me, but my family members as well.”
Opposition to the coup is still not waning. And Chaw Su’s husband remained defiant until the end. He even suggested that poetry might no longer be sufficient. In his last 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 poetry.
It is now certain that only words from the mouth are not enough.
We have to choose weapons. I will shoot.