‘He was completely devoted to the revolution’

July 24th, 2023  •  Author:   Radio Free Asia  •  9 minute read

One year after the execution of Burmese democracy activist Ko Jimmy, his wife discusses his legacy.

By Khin Maung Soe for RFA Burmese | 2023.07.24

Myanmar activist Jimmy and his wife Nilar Thein [holding their daughter] celebrate upon their arrival at Yangon International Airport following their release from detention on Jan. 13, 2012. Photo: Soe Than Win/AFP

On July 23, 2022, Myanmar’s military junta executed three activists and a former lawmaker for continuing to fight for democracy after the military ousted the country’s democratically elected government in the Feb. 1, 2021 coup.

Among them was veteran democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, a writer and translator better known as Ko Jimmy,  who was a prominent leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group who fought military rule three decades ago.

He was arrested in October 2021 after spending eight months in hiding and was convicted in a closed-door trial by a military tribunal in January under the Counter-Terrorism Law.

Ko Jimmy was accused of contacting the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, National Unity Government (NUG), and People’s Defense Forces (PDF) an opposition coalition and militia network formed by politicians ousted in the coup.

The junta also said he advised local militia groups in Yangon and ordered PDF groups to attack police, military targets, and government offices, and asking the NUG to buy a 3D printer to produce weapons for local militias.

The executions of Ko Jimmy, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw were decried by UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, as “depraved acts,” while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the executions “reprehensible acts of violence.” 

One year after the execution, Radio Free Asia’s Burmese Service interviewed Ko Jimmy’s widow Nilar Thein. She discussed the sacrifices her husband made for the country.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Jimmy [second from left] and other former student leaders of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising attend a ceremony to mark the 59th Anniversary of Independence Day at the National League for Democracy party headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, Jan. 3, 2007. Credit: Aung Hla Tun/Reuters


RFA: It’s been a year since Jimmy and the other three political activists were executed by the junta. How has the past year without him affected you?

Nilar Thein: Since the time he was executed, we have suffered, grieved and are in great pain. But I have turned those feelings into strength to continue his fight. I believe that I have one new responsibility: to live his dream and work even harder.

RFA: What have you been doing these days?

Nilar Thein: I am shouldering as much responsibility for the revolution as I can. I am working on tasks that are suitable for my age and situation with a determination that whatever I do, regardless of where I am, must strengthen the revolution.

RFA: Reports from Myanmar say that the junta forces continue acts of violence and violate human rights in prisons and all over the country. What’s your opinion on that?

Nilar Thein: In my opinion, I can say one thing that this is the junta’s last moment. Their brutality and cowardice have become worse. The revolutionary forces are in control of more areas of the country these days, so in response the junta’s actions have become even more brutal and cowardly. We continue to witness their serious violations of human rights.


Jimmy met fellow 88 Generation student Nilar Thein when they were both in prison. They married after being released. Credit: Nilar Thein


RFA: What is your view towards young people opposed to the junta?

Nilar Thein: A generation was born during the spring revolution. This generation sacrificed their hopes, dreams, future and even their lives and took part in the revolution in any way they can to try to bring an end to this military dictatorship. Their involvement in the revolution, their ideas, opinions and their performance were recognized, applauded and idolized globally.

RFA: I’d like to ask a little about Jimmy. Did he not know how much danger he could be in by continuing to stay in Yangon? And if he did, why did he remain in Yangon?

Nilar Thein: Since Jimmy left home on the morning of the military coup until he was arrested, he only stayed in Yangon. After seeing younger activists and children being slaughtered by the junta, he said that when younger people who were as young as his own children were sacrificing their lives, old men like him who can live or die at their age have to participate. He was so eager to work together, networking with urban guerrilla groups, young people from student unions and other organizations. He was completely devoted to the revolution. That’s not because he did not know the danger he could be in. I knew what trouble he would be in. But he worked his best for the revolution while he still could.


Jimmy, his wife, Nilar Thein, and their daughter are seen in this undated photo. “When I first learned that we were having the baby, I thought we have to apologize to our child in advance,” he said. Credit: RFA


RFA: What kind of impact do you think the sacrifice that Jimmy and other activists made has had on the fight for democracy?

Nilar Thein: When we heard that Jimmy, Phyo Zayar Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw were executed by the junta, it was not just a threat to their families alone. It was not just a threat to our country alone. But it was a threat to the whole world. As a result, all our people have become more strenuous in their revolutionary acts with a resolution that they will not give in to the junta’s execution of their leaders. They worked harder and took up responsibilities where they could. Those who could not participate on the front lines provided even a handful of rice or a cup of water, whatever they could support the revolution. Those who can provide supplies for the revolution have worked harder for the cause. Although the junta has tried to threaten the people with these executions, we have become more fearless and more rebellious against the military.


The Myanmar junta released this photo of Jimmy after his arrest. MRTV/Handout via Reuters


RFA: We’ve heard news that the military junta that once gave death sentences now does not even bother to prosecute political prisoners in court and kills them after taking them out in a fake prison transfer. What is your view toward such actions of the military junta?

Nilar Thein: We’ve heard lately that the junta has killed prisoners … after taking them out in a fake prison transfer. So now, I have learned that the word prison transfer could mean an execution. Since local and international communities seriously condemned the junta’s execution of political prisoners, I think they now try to avoid official execution that will cause criticism. So they lawlessly kill our comrades on the purported excuse that they tried to escape. We heard these days that the junta killed our comrades from Insein, Tharyarwaddy and Dike-U prisons during transfers. The fact that the junta doesn’t even bother to officially execute prisoners like before and lawlessly murders them instead, indicates how the military junta is oppressing the people without any regard to law and regulations in our country. I would like to urge the international community to condemn these atrocious acts by the military junta and stand with the people.


Protesters march in Yangon holding a banner with Jimmy’s last words, a day after he was executed, July 25, 2022. Citizen journalist


RFA: Would you tell us about your daughter? What is she doing these days and how has she understood what kind of person her father was?

Nilar Thein: My daughter takes part in volunteering activities and also teaches children. She loves her father very much and her father loved her so dearly too. She said that her father helped other people more than himself as a politician, a selfless and responsible person who did not oppress others with his power of leadership and someone who defies unjustness. As a father, even though he might not wholly accept the views of young people, he showed respect. He hung out with them. He supported his daughter’s interests and activities. He did not put pressure on our daughter regarding her studies. Jimmy made time for his daughter even when he was very busy. What he used to tell her often was that any result she got was good enough because she tried her best regarding her exams and competitions. Our daughter said that her dad was a politician who loved the arts.

RFA: How would you evaluate the status of the fight for democracy these days?

Nilar Thein: During the past two years, there were many sectors that we had to try to rebuild after being totally destroyed. I’ve seen that those who have taken responsibility for this are working so hard, facing a lot of difficulty to rebuild and readjust and try to be able to reach the international community. They have achieved some success and strength but there are still many problems and weaknesses on this side too. We accept the existence of these problems. We are going to cooperate with a positive mindset that we will do what we can for the revolution.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Edited by Eugene Whong. 

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