His words captured the unflinching determination of the Myanmar public in the face of military brutality: “They shoot in the head, but they don’t know revolution dwells in the heart.”
The poet Khet Thi was taken from his home in Shwebo, in the Sagaing region, last Saturday. The next day, his wife collected his body from a hospital. His organs had been removed, she told BBC Burmese.
The military has tried to crush any form of dissent over recent months, including writers or celebrities whose words have the power to inspire hope and rebellion.
“Poetry, charisma and courage are a deadly blend against any tyranny,” said Ko Ko Thett, a poet, translator and anthologist of contemporary Burmese poetry, who is based in the UK.
At least 32 writers and poets are in detention, according to PEN International, a global association of writers which has been tracking arrests. Others have fallen victim to military violence on the frontlines of rallies. Two poets – K Za Win and Myint Myint Zin – were shot dead when the military opened fire on protesters in March
On Friday, U Sein Win, a poet, politician and philanthropist, was doused in petrol and burned to death in an attack by an unknown perpetrator. He is the fourth poet to be killed in recent months.
Myanmar’s rich poetic heritage is deeply intertwined with politics. Poets used verse to resist British colonial rule, as well as the previous military regime, which censored and imprisoned writers. Poets would meet in tea shops to discuss their works, and use coded language to bypass censorship.
When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was elected to power in 2015’s historic election – a breakthrough for democracy after decades of direct military rule – 11 poets were among the candidates who won seats.
Though there were still limitations on expression under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, poets were able to write and publish far more freely.
Khet Thi quit his job as an engineer in 2012 to pursue poetry, selling cakes and ice-creams on the side to support himself. He grew up in Pale township in Monywa, where his parents operated a peanut oil press, and first began writing poetry while at school.
“His poems have always been special and unique because they came from his heart,” said a close friend. They had not been able to meet since the coup, and had avoided discussing the political situation on the phone, in case they were being monitored. Many poets were in hiding, fearing arrest, he said.
“Khet Thi’s virtue was that he only wanted to be friends with people who see people as people [who do not discriminate]. He was a revolutionary with strong beliefs and someone who never steps back,” the friend added.
Khet Thi was possibly the only prominent poet from Myanmar’s Bamar majority who wrote about the 2017 Gu Dar Pyin massacre, said Ko Ko Thett. Discussion of such attacks, where hundreds of Rohingya were killed by security forces and buried in mass graves, was highly sensitive.
Before the coup, he would sell printed copies of his books, but over recent months his words were shared mainly on Facebook. He addressed rallies, telling crowds at a march on 27 March that every protester in Myanmar was a Nobel peace prize winner. “Who does the power belong to?” he shouted into a microphone. “The people!” protesters replied.
Though critical of the NLD, K Za Win also appeared at the front line of protests that swept the country in the wake of the coup, defending the party’s election victory and right to govern. He grew up in Letpadaung near Monywa, and spoke out about land rights after his family lost their land to a mining project pursued jointly by a Chinese and Myanmar military-backed company.
K Za Win was a Buddhist monk but left the sangha, said Ko Ko Thett, because he believed there was little point in being recognised as a learned monk by the military state.
He spent more than one year in prison after he was arrested for taking part in a rally for education reform in 2015. After his release, he published his most famous work, a collection called My Reply to Ramon.
Prior to his death, K Za Win had written on Facebook: “Though I have different views than you, I’ll lay down my life for you all.” Myint Myint Zin and K Za Wi were among 38 people killed during crackdowns on protesters on 3 March.
The poets expressed the emotions that were felt by the people, said May, a professor in Japan. “This revolution is led by all of our sheer will power and we need literary people who speak for us.”
The Burmese language already has a poetic quality, said Ko Ko Thett. “It features euphonies and rhymes frequently. Most Burmese slogans, by the regime or anti-regime groups, are couplets.”
But the verses written by Khet Thi and others are far more than a literary exercise. Security forces have killed790 people since the coup, according to an advocacy group, including protesters, bystanders and dozens of children. Thousands have been arrested, and are often held in unknown locations. Reports of torture of widespread.
“For many people on the ground in Myanmar, lines such as ‘with what grief I will grieve for you, my martyred son’ by [the poet] A Phaw Khaing have become daily reality. People who are at a loss for words tend to find answers in poetry,” he said.
Many will remember Khet Thi by one of his famous lines, written in response to military violence: “You try so hard to bury us underground, because you don’t know that we are the seeds.”
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021. Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.
The story of al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.
Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi
Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”
Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?
“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”
Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:
“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”
Joe Dyke heads the investigation team at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars Anas Baba is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Gaza