After the first and second poets were killed, the third poet wrote a poem.
“They shoot in the head / But they don’t know / that the revolution lives in the heart.”
When the third poet was assassinated, the fourth poet wrote a poem.
“Don’t let your blood flow / strengthen your blood to face this fight.”
When the fourth poet was killed, his body consumed by fire on May 14, no one wrote any verse. For now, at least.
The poetry remains alive in Myanmar, where unconventional weapons are used to fight the armed forces that have killed more than 800 people since they carried out a military coup on February 1, toppling the elected government. For some Democratic activists, there is no way to differentiate their politics from poetry.
Realizing the power of well-chosen words, Myanmar’s generals have arrested more than 30 poets since the coup, according to the National Union of Poets. At least four poets have been killed. They all lived in the town of Monywa, located in Myanmar’s central plain, which emerged as a center of fierce resistance to the coup.
“Anti-authoritarian sentiment has always been part of the flesh and blood of poets,” said U Yee Mon, who in addition to being a poet is the defense minister of an out-of-power democratic government that defies the military junta fortress in the jungle. “People who wield guns are afraid of hands that hold a pen.”
Resistance to Myanmar’s military, which has dominated the country since its independence from the UK, inspires people from all walks of life. Students and beauty pageants participated in protests; doctors and engineers too. Poets also participate. Their rhyming stanzas saw the war cries of the protest movement.
The first poets killed by the security forces after the military coup were Ko Chan Thar Swe and Ma Myint Myint Zin. One was shot in the head and the other in the chest during a demonstration in Monywa in early March.
Chan Thar Swe had left a Buddhist monastery over 12 years ago to write poetry. It was an initiative that shocked his family, who appreciated the prestige of having a clergyman among its members, as his sister, Ma Khin Sandar Win said. His poems, which he signed under the pseudonym K Za Win, were full of a vigor that did not correspond to his monastic past.
In 2015, his political activism for land, education and environmental causes led to his arrest. The same happened to dozens of other poets. Chan Thar Swe continued to compose poems in his prison cell; worms filled his head. Prisoners were allowed to have books in prison, but not pens, so he memorized his verses. Rigor has helped dry up his poetry, in which there is nothing superfluous. Chan Thar Swe wrote “Revolution” five days after the military coup.
“Dark nights / Take too long to pass.”
The poem ends in a climate of hope.
“He will arise / For it is the duty of those who dare / to conquer the darkness and open the door to the light.”
On March 4, her sister was summoned by the police to go to Monywa Mortuary. There, Khin Sandar Win said, she identified her brother’s body. A bullet hole had pierced his left temple. And a long cut ran down his chest.
The family speculated that the incision could indicate that his internal organs had been removed. It is a desecration that is increasingly common among those killed by the military in Myanmar. But Chan Thar Swe’s body was cremated before family members could find out more.
Today, his mother spends her days looking at photos of him, her oldest son, on Facebook. His photos and his ashes are all that is left of his son.
“My brother did not support us financially, since he was a poet, but he protected us when it was necessary”, commented Khin Sandar Win.
At Chan Thar Swe’s funeral, another poet, Ko Khet Thi, recited verses he had written for people executed by the security forces, many of them with a single bullet in the head and some then that they weren’t even protesting.
“They started to burn the poets / when the smoke from the burning books / could no longer choke the lungs charged with revolt.”
A few weeks after the funeral, Khet Thi, a former engineer, was arrested. Later, according to his family, he appeared dead. His corpse also had an unexplained incision along his chest.
“I too am afraid of being arrested and killed, but I will continue to fight,” said Ko Kyi Zaw Aye, another poet from Monywa. He was friends with Chan Thar Swe and Khet Thi.
Political poetry in Myanmar dates back to the days when the Burmese kingdoms used minstrels to mobilize soldiers before battles. When the population revolted against the oppression of the British Empire, the poets took the lead in the independence movement.
The lyricism of the Burmese language, with its rhyming syllables and vivid imagery embedded in familiar phrases, helped make poetry a powerful national artistic genre. It also helped camouflage the true meaning of the poets’ words – an important tool for anyone facing censorship from colonial administrators or army generals.
Dissent and poetry have remained linked.
U Sein Win was a strong supporter of the National League for Democracy in Monywa. He paints and sculpts wood. He wrote poems and plays. When he spoke, his hands danced, following his words. Her long hair framed her face.
On the morning of May 14, an assailant threw a bucket of gasoline at Sein Win, 60, and lit a match, according to the poet’s daughter, Ma Thin Thin Nwe. His facial features melted. Sein Win died that night. Since the military coup, more than a dozen democratic politicians, activists and ordinary citizens have died in similar unexplained attacks.
At Chan Thar Swe’s funeral, Khet Thi, weeks before he was also murdered, predicted the destructive power of fire and spoke of the rebirth that ensued.
“They started to burn the poets / but the ashes fertilize the soil.”