Myanmar Unites in Demand to Spare Pro-Democracy Leaders

By The Irrawaddy 17 June 2022

Millions of people from Myanmar, including expats, are worrying for the lives of two leading pro-democracy activists, Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, as the junta insists it will hang them, defying global condemnations and appeals.

Since the junta announced it would execute Ko Jimmy, 53, a leading activist since the 1988 popular uprising, and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, a former National League for Democracy (NLD) MP, their families, colleagues, resistance fighters, the public and international groups have feared for their lives.

Ko Jimmy, center, and his wife Ma Nilar Thein, leave Yangon International Airport following their release in January 2012.

Many people expressed their sorrow and fury after they heard of the planned executions, seeing the pair as exemplary freedom fighters against military rule.

Ko Jimmy, third from left, along with his 88 Generation comrades.

Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, who are both former political prisoners, have sacrificed much for the cause of democracy over previous decades.

Ko Jimmy and his family.

Ko Jimmy has spent nearly half his life in prison and was first sentenced to 20 years in jail for his involvement in the student demonstrations and underground movement during the 1988 popular uprising. He was sentenced to five years for his role in the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Ko Jimmy (right), State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and his comrade Ko Min Ko Naing (left) at a state dinner in 2018.

Ko Jimmy served 21 years in the Insein and Tharawaddy prisons from 1988 to 2005 and 2007 to 2012.

His wife Ma Nilar Thein was another 88 Generation Student leader and the couple have a 15-year-old daughter. Ma Nilar Thein is in hiding for her anti-junta activism.

Ko Jimmy donates essentials during the COVID19 pandemic in May 2020.

After his release in 2012, Ko Jimmy worked with philanthropic projects, capacity-building schemes for young people and educational programs along with 88 Generation comrades, like Ko Min Ko Naing.

Ko Jimmy is known by his friends as a kind man who loves his family and is fond of art, music and writing. However, when it comes to the cause of democracy, he held special courage to fight with young resistance fighters against a regime which was killing and terrorizing the population.

Ko Jimmy meets then United States ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel.

Former fellow inmate and friend Ko Kyaw Htwe, an NLD lawmaker, told The Irrawaddy: “He enjoys literature and music but he also set an example for all generations as a courageous revolutionary who won’t accept injustice.”

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop star turned politician, has also become a symbol of ongoing resistance against military oppression.

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw on stage in 2019. / Thein Than Oo

He served as an MP from 2012 to 2020 after making his name in Acid, a pioneering hip-hop band, after 2000. His first imprisonment came in 2008 after he founded the Generation Wave underground youth group, known for using guerrilla tactics to distribute material opposing the then junta.

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw in the Union Parliament in Naypyitaw.

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw described his six years’ imprisonment as a period of soul-searching which turned him from an activist who rebelled against injustice to a politician who wanted to make permanent changes.

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw with former US president Barack Obama.

He joined the NLD on his release in 2011 and beat military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party candidates former lieutenant general Wai Lwin, an ex-defense minister, in a 2012 by-election and another former general, Myat Hein, in the 2015 general election.

He developed a reputation as a hard-working and passionate legislator who always educated himself deeply about issues. The former rapper did not contest the 2020 election as he wanted to return to music. He campaigned ahead of the 2020 November election in Naypyitaw but then returned to music.

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw (right) as a National League for Democracy lawmaker with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Parliament in 2016.

But he immediately joined the anti-regime protests after the February 2021 coup.

“We take to the streets because we should. If we are all united, the regime will be gone soon. That’s what I believe and our cause must prevail,” he said at a Yangon protest in early March.

Following the junta crackdowns, Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw went into hiding and joined the armed resistance in Yangon.

Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw speaking at an anti-regime protest in Yangon. / Maung Sun

The regime claimed he was the civilian National Unity Government’s representative for Yangon and the leader of a special task force and a people’s defense force fighting military rule.

“He always does what he thinks is right. Nothing can stop him from his pro-democracy activism. People like him and Ko Jimmy aren’t afraid of cruelty,” said his wife, Ma Thazin Nyunt Aung.

Ma Thazin Nyunt Aung and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw.

Two other men were also put on the execution list together for killing a woman who was an alleged military informant.

The Irrawaddy team hopes all four opponents of military rule are spared from the junta’s thirst for blood and enjoy freedom once again.

We repeat the call that is being heard around the world: don’t kill them.

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