From the Archive

Why the Past Can’t be Put to Rest

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 5 August 2017

This month, Myanmar commemorates the 29th anniversary of the nationwide protests in 1988 that defined the pro-democracy movement. Ma Win Maw Oo, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, was gunned down in Yangon with other demonstrators on Sept. 19, 1988—the day after a new junta seized power. Her final request to her father was that he not perform the last rites over her body until the country had become a democracy. In this article from 2013, Ma Win Maw Oo’s family explains why they honored her wish.

In 2016, after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy administration was elected and took office, Ma Win Maw Oo’s parents finally put her soul to rest.

YANGON—Though it happened more than two decades ago, U Win Kyu is still haunted by old memories. Daw Khin Htay Win, his wife, is torn between her wish and her husband’s promise to their daughter.

His mind drifts back to a September evening 25 years ago. He was running from ward to ward in Yangon General Hospital looking for his daughter after learning that she was in critical condition after being shot by the army. Around him, the hospital was teeming with patients badly injured by trigger-happy soldiers. He recalls that there were pools of blood on the floors.

“Every year at this time, it all comes back to me,” said the 61-year-old father, recounting the last hours of his daughter Ma Win Maw Oo, who moaned in pain on the hospital bed suffering from a fatal wound caused by a bullet that shred a lung.

The 16-year-old schoolgirl was gunned down in downtown Yangon with other pro-democracy demonstrators on Sept. 19, 1988—the day after a new junta seized power after months of protests. Her fatal shooting was captured in a photograph that shows her blood-soaked body being carried away by two young doctors. That image, which appeared in the Oct. 3, 1988, issue of Newsweek’s Asian edition, soon became an icon of the brutality of the crackdown.

Every year in September when the anniversary of their eldest daughter’s death is approaching, the couple in their sixties faces a great dilemma: should they perform Buddhist rites to release Ma Win Maw Oo’s soul into the afterlife, or fulfill the wish she expressed to her father from her deathbed? Her dying words were, “Don’t call my name to bestow merit upon my soul until Myanmar enjoys democracy.”

The eighth-standard girl’s final wish is a shocking one in Myanmar society, where a deeply rooted traditional belief has it that a person’s soul can’t rest in peace until his or her name is called out by the family to share their merit with the deceased.

“As a mother, I don’t want her soul to wander,” Daw Khin Htay Win said with a deep sigh. “But I have to respect her wish and my husband’s promise to her,” she added, explaining why the family hasn’t shared their merit with their daughter for the last 24 years.

Despite Myanmar’s recent democratic reforms, the family said they still don’t feel that they can call for merit to be bestowed upon their daughter’s soul this year.

“You cannot say democracy is now flourishing in our country,” U Win Kyu told The Irrawaddy recently, sitting in front of an enlarged picture of his daughter in the family’s one-room shack on the outskirts of Yangon.

“As long as we don’t have a president heartily elected by the people, we cannot call her name to bestow merit upon her soul,” he said. His wife nodded in agreement.

Both parents remember Ma Win Maw Oo as a “good” daughter who supplemented the family income by selling sugar-cane and traditional snacks in the streets. She wanted to be a singer inspired by the Myanmar pop star Hay Mar Ne Win (not related to then dictator Gen Ne Win). She hated injustice, so when the country’s people rose up against military rule in 1988, she knew she had to join.

“It was her burning sense of [the government’s] injustice that took her life,” said Daw Khin Htay Win.

Min Ko Naing, the most prominent student leader of the 1988 uprising, said that Ma Win Maw Oo and others who gave their lives for the cause of democracy did not do so in vain.

“If possible, I wish I could tell her we are still marching to the goal she wants by crossing the bridge she and other people built by sacrificing their lives,” he said.

Since Ma Win Maw Oo’s death, her family has had an extreme dislike of the army. But, as time goes by, their hatred toward Myanmar’s military men diminishes. U Win Kyu said he prefers to let bygones be bygones, and is not interested in seeking justice for his daughter.

“My daughter was brutally killed and I myself also used to have bitter feelings toward the army,” he said. “But now I’ve come to realize that it was her destiny to face that kind of death. We no longer hold a grudge.”

But they still want something.

“We want the president to make some sort of memorial to honor those who fell during the ‘88 uprising,” said Daw Khin Htay Win, adding that that would be the best way to assuage the grief of families who lost loved ones in the struggle to restore democracy.

“If it really happened, it would fill us with pride and joy,” she said.

This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.