Forged in Times of Danger: My Connection With Ko Jimmy and Ma Nilar Thein

By Naing Khit 1 September 2022

Looking back, my strongest connections with the executed activist Ko Jimmy, his wife Ma Nilar Thein and their young daughter all came at moments when their lives were in danger. This only became apparent to me after the Myanmar junta executed him by hanging in July.

This is the story of that invisible connection, one that developed between us through years of mortal danger.

Though I was unaware of it at the time, my first connection with the future couple came about through our overlapping incarceration in a notorious prison, known as Tharrawaddy, about 70 miles from Yangon, in the late 1990s when we three were political prisoners of the previous military regime.

While Ko Jimmy was detained in the compound housing cell blocks A and B, his future wife Ma Nilar Thein was kept in the cell block for women prisoners in a separate compound opposite Ko Jimmy’s cell block. My cell block was near the center of the prison, some distance from theirs.

We did not know each other at the time of our detention, and I did not meet them in prison, though we were incarcerated in the same facility for two years until I was released. However, we were familiar with each other by name through mutual friends among activists and political prisoners.

“The walls have ears,” is a common saying among prisoners, expressing the fact that nothing is concealed in prison. Of course, it applies equally to both heart-wrenching and wonderful stories. Even before my release, a love story with Ko Jimmy and Ma Nilar Thein at its center penetrated the walls of the prison into our cells. Without having a chance to date in person, the two political prisoners courted each other through secret notes passed from one cell to another.

After my release in late 1999, they were both detained there for several more years. Soon after they were released in 2005, the two activists married.

That was the first chapter in the story of our connection, though the bond was not yet a conscious one. It was a time of shared danger, during which each of us served lengthy terms of imprisonment in the cells of the cruel regime of that day, led by former dictator Than Shwe, the master of current junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Danger returns

Eight years later, in 2007, I reestablished contact with Ma Nilar Thein. This time, her young family was in danger. Her husband Ko Jimmy had just been arrested for the second time, and she was now a fugitive with a price on her head, in hiding from the regime forces; their 4-month-old daughter was left parentless. During those years, I was a journalist in exile, mainly covering our country’s political issues.

The couple’s “crime” was their leading role in the Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks in Yangon and other cities. Ko Jimmy and dozens of other leading activists were arrested when, in a familiar pattern, the peaceful demonstrations were crushed by the regime.

International media and foreign-based Myanmar media covered the Saffron Revolution and the regime’s brutal crackdown, which led to the deaths of a number of protesters, including Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai in downtown Yangon.

I also covered the protests. Repeatedly, I phoned Ma Nilar Thein and other activists in hiding. Having learned of the danger she and her baby daughter were in, I decided to write a story that would describe her experience in the context of a broader account of the many brave women like her who have played important roles in the country’s independence struggle, from the early 20th century to the anti-military dictatorship movement of that time.

An “inner voice” inside me seemed to push me beyond my professional instincts, and to go beyond mere news reporting to document her struggle, including the lives of her husband and daughter.

After talking to her over the phone many times, I opened the story with an account of her situation in September 2007, as follows:

As the mother of a four-month-old baby, Ma Nilar Thein should be at home now, caring for her little daughter. Instead, she’s a fugitive with a price on her head, in hiding from Myanmar regime forces desperate to silence her and other outspoken activists.

For Ma Nilar Thein, 35, it was a clear choice—whether to remain silent in the interests of her family or to join in the movement to bring democracy to Myanmar, knowing she risked jail and separation from her baby.

She took the second course of action, believing that in the long run it would benefit her daughter far more than if she had done nothing. By working for democratic change in Myanmar, she hoped to “bring about a bright future for my daughter,” Ma Nilar Thein told me from her hiding place.

“Only if we end this bad system will the future of Myanmar people, including my daughter’s, be bright,” she said. “I love my daughter. I had to leave her, but I believe she will later understand why.”

An undated picture of Ko Jimmy and Ma Nilar Thein with their daughter.

She also talked about her political convictions and recounted the story of her first arrest.

During a 1996 demonstration, she slapped a Yangon police chief as he issued repeated orders to his subordinates to beat her. The police officers at first ignored the order, but when she slapped the police chief she was thrown into a vehicle and driven away to jail. She was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for slapping the police chief and to a further seven for her political activities. Later she was transferred to Tharrawaddy Prison, where we were detained.

Her struggle for a just society is rooted in her experience of the 1988 uprising, when she witnessed government soldiers kill, beat and arrest demonstrators outside her Yangon home.

“I still hear those voices in my ears and see those scenes in my mind,” she told me. “I desperately want to get rid of this evil system.”

In January 2008, four months after I wrote my first story about her, I felt that the international community and its media had totally forgotten about her, Ko Jimmy and all of the other political prisoners whose lives were in such danger. My frustration drove me to write another story about her, hoping that giving her an international spotlight would make it harder for the regime to arrest Ma Nilar Thein and other activists in hiding, and put pressure on it to release Ko Jimmy and other political prisoners.

In the opening lines of that story I made no effort to disguise my impatience:

Who remembers her now? Actually, she was well-known about four months ago. But today few seem to remember her. Four months is a long time in today’s fast-moving world.

Nilar Thein’s 9-month-old daughter, Nay Kyi Min Yu, has been living with her grandparents. Her grandparents say she is doing well, but she doesn’t experience the protective, loving kindness of her parents.

The daughter is taken to the prison occasionally to visit her father. But she hasn’t touched her mother in the past months.

Ultimately, however, it seemed that no one cared.

None of the policies and tools brought to bear by the United Nations and the United States had any effect—they didn’t change the regime; didn’t persuade the ruling generals to hold a dialogue with detained leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other key stakeholders; they didn’t even get the regime to release political prisoners and end its oppression.

At that time, Newsweek magazine interviewed then-UN Special Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari. I quoted his interview in my story: “The UN is not in the business of changing regimes.” On the release of political prisoners, he said only: “The release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political prisoners is long overdue.” How about the possibility of political reconciliation with the regime? He responded simply: “It’s long overdue.”

Political pressure, including sanctions, imposed by the West and led by the US, were also in vain. Frustrated with the international community, I finished the story as follows:

The US is the strongest critic of the Myanmar regime and recently it imposed new sanctions targeted at the generals, their families and business cronies. But it doesn’t have any real means to change the regime or open its prisons or get the generals to sit down and talk to opposition and ethnic leaders. It might be another story if Myanmar were in the Middle East, perhaps. 

So, how can Ma Nilar Thein and the Myanmar people be saved?

You can imagine only one person who could save Ma Nilar Thein—Rambo.

It was true. No one could rescue her. After another nine months in hiding she was finally arrested.

Like many other activists, both she and her husband received draconian sentences: 65 years in prison. While Ko Jimmy was sent to a different prison, Ma Nilar Thein was sent back to Tharrawaddy. Their daughter was left with her grandparents and other relatives.

Over the next four years, Myanmar’s political landscape changed, in accordance with a roadmap designed by the military regime. Months after the regime transformed itself into a so-called civilian government led by ex-generals in 2011, the couple were released together with other political prisoners.

“I will be very happy to meet my family,” Ma Nilar Thein told me over the phone soon after she stepped out of prison on Jan. 13, 2012. At the time, her family and her daughter, now almost 5, were on the way to greet her, and Ko Jimmy was in the process of being released from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State.

Ko Jimmy (center) and his wife Ma Nilar Thein with their daughter at Yangon International Airport after their release in January 2012.

For the next nine years, the couple were quite active politically and socially, playing a prominent role as leading activists. With other political activists they helped form a non-profit organization, the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

That period, lasting nearly a decade, was the “freest” time Myanmar people had experienced since the military’s first coup in 1962, despite the generals’ continued control over key political and security matters. In 2016, after 54 years of military rule, the National League for Democracy formed the country’s first civilian government since 1962. But this civilian administration could only govern within the constraints imposed by the undemocratic 2008 Constitution drafted by the previous military regime.

By this time I was back in the country. Occasionally during those years, I would cross paths with Ko Jimmy and Ma Nilar Thein. Sometimes Ko Jimmy and I were invited to join meetings with foreign dignitaries and diplomats over lunch or dinner to share our views on the country’s political affairs. We would just exchange brief greetings—the same went for Ma Nilar Thein. We didn’t stop and take the time to recall our past “connections”. There didn’t seem to be any pressing need to do so: no serious dangers were imminent.

None of us could have known that this period of relative freedom and security was just a brief interlude.

Time to reconnect

Fourteen years after I wrote that series of stories about Ma Nilar Thein and her family, the connection was reestablished—a deadly danger had arisen.

The whole country—virtually its entire population—has been in danger since the most recent military coup on Feb. 1, 2021. The main perpetrator is coup maker and military chief Min Aung Hlaing. He is the enemy of the state and of the people. His enemies are the more than 80 percent of voters who cast their ballots for the NLD in the 2020 election—in other words, a huge majority of the population.

Ko Jimmy, Ma Nilar Thein and all of us who have been proactive in our opposition to the coup and the military dictatorship are his main targets. Ko Jimmy was one among thousands of activists and protesters arrested after the coup. In January 2022, he was one of more than 100 prisoners sentenced to death. While this was a dramatic development, there was no particular reason to believe that he would actually be put to death. The previous military regime, brutal as it was, had stopped carrying out the executions of condemned political prisoners decades earlier.

Many of us simply assumed that this pattern would continue.

But when the junta announced on June 3 that its chief Min Aung Hlaing had ordered that the execution of Ko Jimmy, former lawmaker Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw and two other anti-regime protesters should proceed, I became convinced that Min Aung Hlaing was serious about killing them.

The “inner voice” I heard then was even stronger than the one I heard when I wrote about his fugitive wife, Ma Nilar Thein, after the Saffron Revolution.

It immediately prompted me to write this story: Myanmar’s Junta Seems Serious About Executing Leading Activists. Can We Stop It?

In it, I tried to explain how serious I believed Min Aung Hlaing was about executing the activists, and what sort of response we should expect from anti-regime resistance forces, and even from the public, if they were killed. I urged the entire international community to take effective steps to prevent Ko Jimmy and the rest from being killed. I criticized the US and the UN for failing to do more than issue statements to “condemn” the junta’s order.

The whole intention of that story was to save Ko Jimmy, Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw and two other condemned prisoners, Ko Hla Myo Aung and Ko Aung Thura Zaw.

Feeling a restlessness in my soul, I wrote another story one week later warning the junta that if it killed the prisoners it would face an unprecedented all-out war from the resistance forces, as well as more international pressure. I urged Min Aung Hlaing to revise his execution orders.

After learning that most of the executions of political prisoners in Myanmar’s history were conducted on Saturdays, every Saturday following the junta chief’s execution order brought renewed dread. In the story, I also warned that it was likely their executions would come on a Saturday.

Awfully, all of my fears were realized. I would give anything to have been wrong.

On Saturday, July 23, Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw were executed. The two others were executed the next day.

No one could save Ko Jimmy and his comrades from the gallows. On that day, the country cried for them.

But I believe they died great deaths. I couldn’t help writing about it in another story, Myanmar Is the Country of Great Deaths.

It begins: They died truly great deaths, because they gave their lives: for the people, in order to restore their rights and dignity; for the country, to end the horrific military dictatorship; and for future generations, to rebuild their battered country.

Ko Jimmy was destined to live a great life in which he fought for the people. As a 19-year-old student, he started his mission to free Myanmar from its evil rulers. At the age of 53, he fell as a freedom fighter. He waged a great fight for his whole life; and he died a great death.

His wife Ma Nilar Thein is as strong as he was. For myself, I was not strong enough to talk to her this time, though I managed to channel my concerns and thoughts about Ko Jimmy, and my continued sense of “connection” with the couple, into a series of analyses.

Even after the execution of her husband, Ma Nilar Thein’s frequent posts on social media show that the strong dedication to rid Myanmar of the “bad system”, which she told me of 15 years ago from her hiding place, survives.

I can still recall her exact words: “Only if we end this bad system will the future of Myanmar people, including my daughter’s, be bright… I love my daughter. I had to leave her, but I believe she will later understand why.”

I believe that, if I asked her about this now, she would repeat these words with even stronger determination for her now 15-year-old daughter and her people.

Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.