A funeral without a body in Mandalay

A hushed burial was held at dawn in Mandalay’s Aye Yeik Nyein cemetery on Thursday, with personal effects that belonged to 25-year-old Thu Thu Zin placed in the grave where her body would have been. 

Two days earlier, she was killed by a bullet to the head fired by the junta’s troops as she marched through the city at the forefront of the Mya Taung protest column. 

While police confirmed that same day that the young woman had been killed, troops from the 910th Engineering Battalion—occupying Mandalay Palace and the hills to the east—would not return her body or her ashes to her family. She had already been cremated, they said, her remains presumably discarded. 

As tradition prescribes, Thu Thu Zin’s family offered a meal to monks in her honour and held a graveside funeral service. It was attended by just 10 people and concluded in as many minutes, allegedly under the watch of a military vehicle parked in the vicinity. 

“Here, kid, take some money to buy gas for your motorbike and a top-up for your phone,” an older relative said at the ceremony, his voice shaking, placing a modest offering of cash in an empty tomb. 

Transformed into an activist

Before the February 1 coup, Thu Thu Zin led a relatively normal life, working full-time at a cosmetics company during the week and volunteering with local charity groups on the weekends. She was the second youngest of four children and lived with her parents in Mandalay’s Minde Eikin ward. 

Friends and relatives who knew her said that the military’s attempted seizure of power transformed her into an activist who became devoted to resisting the junta. She quit her job to dedicate herself fully to the anti-dictatorship movement in her city. 

“She used to get angry at me when I tried to stop her. She said, ‘Who will do it if I don’t? Even educated people like doctors are risking their lives for this. What else is there for me to lose?’” a relative said. 

Major military crackdowns on protests in Mandalay meant that city-wide demonstrations were crushed, with activists resorting to guerilla-style tactics to organise and hold flash protests as evidence of their continued rejection of military rule. 

In these dangerous times, Thu Thu Zin was known for joining any protest column that dared to march in the city’s streets. Her family tried to prohibit her from taking part, but they could not stop her. 

“When we didn’t let her go anymore, she’d lie about where she was going,” her relative said. 

Thu Thu Zin, 25, died of a gunshot to the head during the crackdown on a July 27 protest in Mandalay (Supplied)

‘I saw her fall’

In June, as public expressions of dissent were being violently suppressed by the military in Mandalay, Thu Thu Zin joined the well-known Mya Taung protest column headed by monks, one of her friends told Myanmar Now.  

It was at this friend’s house where Thu Thu Zin had been staying in recent weeks in an effort to shield her family from the military’s arrests, which often target relatives of activists wanted by the junta. 

Thu Thu Zin came home for the last time five days before she was killed, and told her relatives not to be concerned about her safety. 

“She attended the protests regularly, but she lied to us and said that she was out volunteering with her friends, so as not to worry her mother,” the relative who spoke to Myanmar Now said. 

The day she was shot dead, she was holding a flag at the front of the protest column, shouting chants, her friend said. 

We have to work harder. We’re never backing down

The last time Thu Thu Zin was seen, she was stumbling to the ground in front of the eastern gate of the Mahamuni pagoda after the military fired three shots at the crowd, her friend who witnessed the event told Myanmar Now. 

“I saw her fall as soon as I heard the gunshots. We couldn’t do anything for her as we were running for our lives as well. We couldn’t even get her body back,” she said.

It is believed that in addition to Thu Thu Zin, four more protesters were taken into junta custody from the column. Among them was 20-year-old Toe Toe Aung, who was shot and injured. No further information about the detainees’ whereabouts or their conditions was available at the time of reporting. 

Thu Thu Zin’s friend said that she would never stop mourning her death, or avenging others whose lives have been taken by the military. 

“We have to work harder. We’re never backing down,” she said. 

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