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 beaten to death.
A civil engineer by training, the 43-year-old quit his job in the civil service in the central Myanmar city of Shwebo in 2012 and opened a patisserie and ice cream parlor to support his poetry.
“Before the coup, he wrote poems about love, about life,” says his friend Nyein Chan, another poet, “but afterward, all he wrote was about the revolution.”
The revolution is what Nyein Chan calls resistance to the February 1 coup that abruptly 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 the security forces.
The Burma Political Prisoners Assistance Association, an advocacy group, puts the figure at more than 850, including Khet Thi. Well known in the restless Sagaing region, he wrote perhaps his most famous poem after security forces killed a close friend, another poet, with a gunshot 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. He said: ‘They shoot in the head, but they don’t know that the revolution is in the heart.’ “
Nyein Chan says that his friend’s spirit and commitment to resistance were strong. “For this revolution, I have decided to sacrifice my life,” recalls Khet Thi saying. “Those words showed us his commitment. Now, I feel sad when I remember what he said.”
The poetry of Khet Thi and its highly visible presence on social media it may have made him a tempting target for a board prone to hunting, jailing, and killing artists and activists. His widow, Chaw Su, remembers the terrible night they came looking for him.
“Around 10 o’clock at night, soldiers and police surrounded the house, more than 100 of them,” he 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 they separated us for questioning.”
Eleven hours later, the police told him that Khet Thi was in a hospital about 60 miles away in Monywa. “If Khet Thi died, it depends on his karma,” he says he was told. She learned that her husband had died after arriving at the hospital.
He had to beg them to release the body at the hospital, he says.
“In the morning, I tried to comb his long hair and found that his head was badly injured,” she says with a cracking voice. “His ribs were badly damaged and so was his broken nose. They said he died of heart disease. But they just hit his head.”
When she recovered her husband’s body, says Chaw Su, there was a long incision in her chest that had been crudely stitched up. “There is no justice,” he 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 Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners, says that at least 20 families from Myanmar have had similar experiences.
“They actually return that body to create a climate of fear,” he says. “They want people to know that if you are really against them, you will be tortured to death.”
It is a tactic that has been perfected by the Myanmar military over decades of fighting with ethnic minority militias and, more recently, in the hearts of the majority. Citizen journalists have posted grim photos and videos on social media of soldiers or police dragging bodies into vehicles.
Nick Cheesman, a fellow at the Australian National University, calls it “state terror and torture.”
“The way bodies are used is part of a kind of spectacular violence,” says Cheesman. “Spectacular violence that is characteristic of the way state terror works in Myanmar under the military dictatorship.”
State terror, Cheesman writeIt wears people out. The whites do not eliminate them, they exhaust them. That includes the widow of Khet Thi.
“They’re looking at me,” says Chaw Su. “At night, after curfew, they are here around my house. I am afraid. Not only me, but also my family members.”
Still, the resistance to the blow does not yield. And Chaw Su’s husband remained defiant until the end. He even suggested that poetry would no longer be enough. In his final poem, he wrote:
I can’t fire a gun. I can only create a beautiful cake.
Now they shoot my men. But I can only fight back with a poem.
Now it is certain that only the words of the mouth are not enough.
We have to choose weapons. I want to shoot.