Hlyan Phyo Aung: Aspiring engineer maimed in sadistic attack becomes an emblem of his generation

April 9th, 2021  •  Author:   Hlyan Phyo Aung (Magway)  •  6 minute read
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By Myanmar Now

The fate of 22-year-old Hlyan Phyo Aung speaks to the worst fears of those who came of age during Myanmar’s brief era of relative freedom

Two weeks ago, 22-year-old Hlyan Phyo Aung was an active young man with a promising future as a civil engineer. That was despite the fact that, like others of his generation, his prospects had taken a dramatic turn for the worse when the military seized power less than two months earlier. As someone with a great deal to lose if the regime held onto power, he was determined to make sure that didn’t happen.

That’s why, on the morning of March 27, he was one of hundreds of thousands of young people around the country who had turned out to demand an end to military rule. In his case, he had joined a protest in his hometown of Magway, where a brutal crackdown that day that would change Hlyan Phyo Aung’s life forever.

The military assault started early. At around 6am, regime forces started throwing tear gas canisters and stun grenades at protesters gathered near the city’s Aung Myittar roundabout, hemming them in from all sides.

Like all the others, Hlyan Phyo Aung tried to escape this onslaught by running in any direction that didn’t seem to be under fire. That’s when an explosion went off nearby and he fell to the ground. Seconds later, he was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, one of whom ordered him to put up his hands.

When he did, Hlyan Phyo Aung noticed that blood was running down his right arm. It was at that moment that he realized the explosion had torn away a piece of his hand.

“So where is your ‘mother’ now?” the soldier taunted, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s ousted civilian government.

Then, without a moment’s hesitation, the soldier shot directly at Hlyan Phyo Aung’s hand, blowing it off entirely, according to another protester who witnessed this horrific scene from a short distance away.

“While he was kneeling, they shot at his hand at close range. Then it just came right off and dropped onto the ground,” said the protester, speaking to Myanmar Now on condition of anonymity.

But Hlyan Phyo Aung’s ordeal wasn’t over yet. Another soldier approached him and fired several rubber bullets at his remaining hand. When Hlyan Phyo Aung could no longer hold himself up and fell forward, a few other soldiers proceeded to kick him repeatedly in the face, the witness said.

Frontline protesters are seen at an anti-coup rally in Yangon’s Sanchaung township on March 1 (Myanmar Now)

An unlikely rescue

There is little doubt that this would have ended in Hlyan Phyo Aung’s death if a group of about 15 other protesters hadn’t rushed to his defense. They did this despite the certainty that they would face arrest or worse for their actions.

As the soldiers continued pummeling their helpless victim, some of the protesters threw themselves on top of Hlyan Phyo Aung’s now unconscious body to stop the blows.

“They were kicking and punching him in the face and legs when these people came over to cover his body with theirs. They even shot at his leg when it stuck out from under them! One man who pleaded with them to stop was hit in the head with the butt of a gun,” said the witness.

This unlikely rescue, which resulted in the arrest of all those who came to Hlyan Phyo Aung’s aid, came after a woman who was nearby when the frenzied attack began held up a three-finger salute and started chanting anti-coup slogans, the witness recalled.

Like other heavily injured protesters who were arrested that day, Hlyan Phyo Aung was transported to a military hospital. Thanks to his rescuers, none of his injuries were life-threatening. However, his once-bright future now seems far from assured.

According to a close friend, what was left of Hlyan Phyo Aung’s right hand was amputated at the wrist, and he has also lost the use of his left hand, perhaps permanently. His left leg, which was shot eight times, may also have to be amputated. He also has two bullet wounds in his right thigh and sustained serious injuries to his face.

Speaking to Myanmar Now on April 4, the friend said that doctors at the military hospital were not able to repair damage to Hlyan Phyo Aung’s eyes caused by the discharge of weapons close to his face. He added that permission to receive treatment at a private hospital had been denied.

Protesters are pictured enveloped in tear gas in Yangon’s Sanchaung township on March 1 (Myanmar Now)

Junta crimes

The reason he can’t be released from the military hospital is that Hlyan Phyo Aung is now, in the eyes of the regime that has maimed him for life, a criminal. He has been charged with incitement under section 505a of the penal code and faces up to three years in prison for resisting army rule.

Meanwhile, according to his friend, he will need multiple surgeries over the next few months to repair some of the damage that the junta has inflicted on his once healthy body.

But none of this is likely to be enough to enable him to continue his studies as a third-year civil engineering student who once dreamed of contributing to his country’s development.

“When he came to, he asked me how he could draw without his right hand,” his father wrote on his Facebook page under the name Hein Htet. “How will he be able to read with just his left eye? How can he speak properly with none of his front teeth?”

“He vowed to get back the ring that his mother had given him as a birthday present, which was on the hand that was destroyed,” his father continued. “He also asked if his friends would love him as they did before.”

“Our son has always been so beautiful to us, and has always been on the side of justice. It will take time for him to heal. If they send him to prison afterwards, he will be so lonely,” his father wrote on March 29.

The family has declined to speak to media about Hlyan Phyo Aung’s condition or the charges against him.

A spokesperson for the regime, which has murdered well over 600 people, including at least 46 children, since the February 1 coup, was also unavailable for comment when contacted by Myanmar Now.

Original post: Myanmar Now