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Killed By Military Forces, A Myanmar Poet's Spirit Of Revolution Lives On In His Work

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Myanmar's security forces have killed more than 850 civilians since the February 1 coup. They've detained more than 4,500 others. Yet people are still resisting, as Michael Sullivan reports. And a warning - this story includes descriptions of torture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Khet Thi was an engineer by training, a job he quit a decade ago to focus on his real love - poetry. He opened an ice cream and cake shop to finance his habit, married a local girl and wrote, says his friend and fellow poet Nyein Chan.

NYEIN CHAN: (Through interpreter) Before the coup, he wrote poems about love, about life. But after, all he wrote about was the revolution.

SULLIVAN: In early March, one of Khet Thi's friends, a poet named K Za Win, was killed by security forces with a bullet to the head. Shortly after Khet Thi wrote what would become his most famous and viral poem.

CHAN: (Through interpreter) Thi went to K Za Win's funeral and read his poem at the service. It went, they shoot in the head, but they don't know the revolution is in the heart.

SULLIVAN: Nyein Chan says Khet Thi's spirit and commitment to the revolution was strong. That and his highly visible social media presence made him a target for a junta hunting and jailing poets and other activists. They came for Khet Thi in early May, says his wife, Chaw Su.

CHAW SU: (Through interpreter) Around 10 o'clock at night, soldiers and police surrounded the house, more than 100 of them. And he attempted 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 we were separated for interrogation.

SULLIVAN: Eleven hours later, she says, the police came in and told her her husband was at a hospital 60 miles away, and he was dead - heart failure, they said. She had to plead with them for his body.

SU: (Through interpreter) In the morning, I tried to comb his long hair and found his head was badly injured. They said he died of heart disease, but they just beat his head in.

SULLIVAN: And, she says, when she got the body back, his entire chest had been crudely stitched back together.

SU: (Through interpreter) They arrest people and kill them 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.

SULLIVAN: The Myanmar advocacy group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, says at least 20 other families have had similar experiences. Association Secretary Bo Kyi.

BO KYI: Naturally, they send the dead body in order to create a climate of fear. They want the people to know if you're really against them, you will be tortured to death.

SULLIVAN: Australian National University researcher Nick Cheesman calls the military's tactics state terror and torture.

NICK CHEESMAN: The manner in which bodies are being used is part of a kind of spectacular violence - spectacular violence which is characteristic of the way that state terror works in Myanmar under the military dictatorship targets.

SULLIVAN: Targets the regime doesn't eliminate, he says, it exhausts. And it's working with Khet Ti's widow, Chaw Su.

SU: (Through interpreter) They're watching me. At night after curfew, they're here around my house. And I'm scared - not just for me but my family, too.

SULLIVAN: Her husband's last poem, though, was defiant and showed a grim determination to do more. I can't shoot a gun, he wrote. My hands can play a guitar or make a beautiful kick. But now my people are being shot, and all I have is my poetry. I am sure now that words are not enough.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.