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A Myanmar activist loses almost everything but hope

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been two years since Myanmar's military seized power. A civil war there has killed thousands of civilians and forced 1.2 million people from their homes. The conflict shows no sign of ending. NPR's Michael Sullivan has this story of a family of democracy activists whose struggle against the military has lasted for decades.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Democracy activists Nilar Thein and Kyaw Min Yu, known by his nickname Ko Jimmy, got to know each other in Tharrawaddy Prison in the early 2000s. In between the beatings and other abuse at the hands of their military jailers, she says, they grew close, secretly passing notes to keep each other's spirits up. Released in 2005, they were married a year later and decided to have a baby soon after. From the jungle hideout that's now her temporary home, Nilar Thein remembers that time.

NILAR THEIN: (Through interpreter) When I was pregnant, Ko Jimmy would hold my stomach as we chanted Buddhist mantras of love to our daughter. But because of the political uncertainty, the turmoil in our country, we apologize to our daughter, too, for what might come in the future.

SULLIVAN: That's because the military was still firmly in control, and she and Ko Jimmy could be arrested again at any time. And he was in August 2007, at the time of the so-called Saffron Revolution against Myanmar's military rulers. So Nilar Thein and her infant daughter went into hiding.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) We were hiding along with some student leaders at an apartment when the authorities started searching nearby. The sound of the baby's crying could get us all arrested, so I asked my daughter to be quiet while I breastfeed her. She seemed to understand and was silent, and we managed to escape. But after that, I decided I had to give my daughter to her grandparents. It was too dangerous for her to be with me. And that decision hurt very much.

SULLIVAN: Not long after, Nilar Thein was arrested again as well. Five years later, as the military gradually loosened its control over the country, both she and Ko Jimmy were released again and reunited with their daughter.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) When I first saw my daughter, I was very happy and wanted to hug her. But I didn't at first because I felt I had to approach her very slowly. Later, while she and I were waiting at the airport for Ko Jimmy to return, she held my hand very tight, and she told me she was afraid I would disappear again. Then Ko Jimmy arrived, and we were finally all together again. It was a blissful experience.

SULLIVAN: Not just blissful but a new start. After spending so much time in prison over so many years, it was a chance to be normal, to be a family.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) Both of us were incredibly excited to start talking to our daughter after all those years. We got to know her by learning what she like, what she didn't and how to be around her. It was a remarkable time in my life.

SULLIVAN: And a remarkable time in the country in general, as the military continued a series of reforms after decades in power, holding parliamentary elections and instituting other reforms that attracted foreign investment and helped improve people's lives. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in 2015. And while the military still wielded significant power, it co-existed uneasily with Suu Kyi's elected government. Then, in November 2020, the NLD won another landslide victory, and the military decided it had had enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Overnight, Myanmar's military has seized control of the country, detaining...

SULLIVAN: On February 1, 2021, hours before the new Parliament was set to convene, Myanmar's military formally seized power, detaining Suu Kyi and many other senior politicians on bogus charges, claiming election fraud. She's since been convicted by a military-run court of several different offenses and is now serving a term of more than 30 years in jail. For Nilar Thein, it was a wake-up call and a warning that the life she and her family had been building was now at risk.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) When the coup occur, I called Ko Jimmy and told him to run away. At the time, I was a volunteer at a COVID center. He told me he would come get me, but I told him no. It was too dangerous. I told him not to come because I thought his freedom was more important.

SULLIVAN: Less than two weeks later, arrest warrants were issued by the military for Ko Jimmy and six other prominent activists for inciting unrest through their social media posts urging resistance to the coup. The man who served 15 years in prison for his role in the 1988 uprising against the military was on the run again until his arrest that October.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) After his arrest, we didn't have any contact with him, and we had no idea where he was being held. Then, on January 23, they announced he's being convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to death. We saw him that day on state TV. He was very skinny, but his smile and his eyes show us his bravery and his spirit.

SULLIVAN: In late July, with little fanfare, Ko Jimmy and three others were hanged by the military at Yangon's infamous Insein Prison, where many democracy activists did time during decades of military rule. Nilar Thein never even got a chance to say goodbye.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) We learned officially about his execution only from the state newspapers that announce it. I was devastated, but I reminded myself that I was not alone.

SULLIVAN: Not alone, she says, because her situation mirrors that of people all over the country. She lives now on the run in the east of the country. Her 15-year-old daughter is in exile for her safety - a daughter Nilar Thein is very, very proud of, one who wrote this essay praising her parent's choices after the coup.

THEIN: (Through interpreter) My daughter wrote in the essay I don't know what kind of challenge I will face, but I will follow the footsteps of what my dad and my mom did. I will fight for freedom, justice and democracy.

SULLIVAN: Nilar Thein is in touch with her daughter infrequently these days because of the danger to both of them, but they are in touch. And her message to her daughter, she says, is simple - be strong. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, on the Thai-Myanmar border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.