Andrew R.C. Marshall
YANGON — The first two bullets struck her legs. The third one ploughed through her chest, shredding a lung and drenching her uniform with blood.
The death of schoolgirl Win Maw Oo, 16, shot by soldiers during Myanmar’s military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988, so torments her family that they have yet to perform the Buddhist rites to release her soul into the afterlife.
“We still can’t forget her,” says Khine Nyein Ei, 30, as she prepares to mark the anniversary of her sister’s death Wednesday. “The tears never dry.”
The authorities haven’t forgotten either. Political reform in Myanmar is fostering greater openness about past atrocities but little accountability, especially when the country’s still-powerful military is involved. Today, Win Maw Oo’s impoverished and long-suffering family remains under police surveillance.
Hers is one of many families now demanding recognition for abuses suffered by loved ones under decades of dictatorship. Their struggle for justice could test both the sincerity of President Thein Sein’s reforms and the patience of Myanmar’s untouchable and seemingly remorseless military.
It also runs counter to a political mood of reconciliation promoted by both opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the once-critical Western governments now engaging with a government packed with former generals. The United States and European Union have lifted most sanctions against Myanmar.
Win Maw Oo’s family have turned their one-room shack on a swamp in Yangon’s northern suburbs into a shrine for her. Its thin bamboo walls are decorated with a harrowing image of the schoolgirl taken by an American photographer just moments after she was shot.
During their interview with Reuters, the first by the foreign media, two plainclothes police with walkie-talkies loitered outside, reported neighbors.
Her mother Khin Htay Win, 59, recalls begging her daughter not to join the near-daily protests in Yangon. Martial law had been declared and the soldiers were expected to be merciless.
“If they dare to shoot, then we dare to die,” her daughter told her.
She was marching with fellow protesters towards the US embassy when the troops opened fire. Everyone scattered, recalls Steve Lehman, who photographed two medics carrying Win Maw Oo’s bloodied body to a nearby ambulance.
“The military was clearing the streets and had shot many people,” he says. “I was shocked by how they were killing girls.”
Yangon General Hospital, where Win Maw Oo was taken, was overwhelmed with dead and wounded protesters.
“It was like a horror movie,” says Lehman. Thousands of people were killed or injured during the crackdown.
The surgeon who operated on Win Maw Oo didn’t save her life. But he did buy her time.
Her father, Win Kyu, struggled to reach the hospital through streets patrolled by trigger-happy soldiers. He arrived to hear her last words.
“Can you promise me something?” she asked. Then she made her father swear not to perform the last rites for her “until you get the democracy we asked for”. Then she died.
Win Maw Oo’s family prepare for the annual remembrance ceremony they have held every September, despite intimidation by the authorities. One year, the army parked armored cars with machine-guns outside their house.
Suu Kyi attended the ceremony in 1997, between periods of house arrest. “So many police came,” recalls sister Khine Nyein Ei.
This year, for the first time, the family will hold a public ceremony in a temple. Permission was granted by the local authorities on condition that no more than 200 people attend.
Among the expected guests are celebrated democrat Min Ko Naing, who was jailed for 15 years for his role in the 1988 protests, and Win Tin, who co-founded the NLD with Suu Kyi just eight days after the schoolgirl was killed. — Reuters