For student who dared to fight, a prison break and death in action

Under the cover of darkness, a group young insurgents moves slowly through a village located about halfway between the towns of Ayadaw and Wetlet in Sagaing Region. Their target is the police station in Shwe Pan Kone, a community of around 500 households located on the eastern bank of the Muu River.

The plan is to ambush some 30 junta troops based at the police station. And so, at around 4am on October 17, they prepared to carry out their mission.

There is a chill in the early morning air, but Kyaw Gyi, a 31-year-old member of a group called 96 Soldiers, is sweating as he awaits the signal to attack. He is less than 10 metres from a bunker located inside the police station compound, ready to fire an RPG launcher mounted on his shoulder. There are two other members of his team next to him, also bracing for the battle that is about to begin.

One of them is Nay Htet, 21, who Kyaw Gyi regards as a close comrade, despite the difference in their ages. Both took part in Yangon’s anti-coup protests, but didn’t meet until later, after they decided to join the armed resistance movement. They became friends while undergoing military training in a liberated area, and have been together ever since.

When the signal comes, Kyaw Gyi fires his weapon. His ears still ringing from the blast, he is engulfed in noise and chaos, as the police inside the station return fire with machine guns.

In the midst of this commotion, he hears someone shout: “Nay Htet is hit!” But by this time, Kyaw Gyi has already fallen back, so he’s not sure of the actual situation. He doesn’t know yet if his friend is seriously injured, or worse.

I was choked up. I couldn’t cry because we were still fighting. I should have been the one who got shot

Some members of their team provide cover so that others can extract Nay Htet. He is still alive. Kyaw Gyi is busy preparing for a second shot with the RPG launcher, but he wants to speak to Nay Htet before they take him away.

“I asked him if he was shot. He responded by standing still at first, and then he collapsed,” Kyaw Gyi recounted.

The two sides continued to clash for about an hour, until helicopters and jet fighters arrived and forced the resistance fighters to retreat. But even as the battle raged, Kyaw Gyi couldn’t stop thinking about his fallen comrade.

“I was choked up. I couldn’t cry because we were still fighting. I should have been the one who got shot,” he said.

Kyaw Gyi was exhausted and still in a daze of disbelief when he returned to his group’s camp and saw Nay Htet’s lifeless body laid out on a bamboo stretcher. He and one other resistance fighter had been killed.

Nay Htet, 21, soon after his arrival in upper Myanmar (Supplied)

Arrest and torture

The two men, a decade apart in age, had only known each other for about a year.

After meeting in a jungle training camp, they joined 96 Soldiers, a group that takes its name from the number of members it had when it was first formed. Although their camp was in Myanmar’s south, several members of the group decided to go north, to Sagaing and Magway regions, where the regime was facing staunch resistance to its rule.

It was in late June that Kyaw Gyi, Nay Htet, and a young female member of the 96 Soldiers group decided to embark on their own upcountry journey to an unfamiliar region.

They made it as far as Myit Chay, a small town in Magway Region located about 25km southwest of Pakokku. Not knowing the area at all, they set up camp at a spot that turned out to be near the local police station.

Soon discovered by police officers on patrol, they were taken into custody. They were beaten throughout their interrogation, but ultimately, it was photos on their phones that betrayed their involvement in the resistance movement.

Once their identities had been established, the Myit Chay police decided to send them to Pakokku. But when some members of a local Pyu Saw Htee group learned about their presence in the town—Myit Chay was, unbeknownst to the trio, a stronghold of the military-backed militia—they demanded that the police hand them over.

Luckily for them, that didn’t happen.

“The head of the police station didn’t let the Pyu Saw Htee take us. If he had, we would all be dead right now,” said Kyaw Gyi.

Even though they were spared certain death, their ordeal was far from over. In Pakokku, they were separated and subjected to further beatings before being charged under Myanmar’s Anti-Terrorism Law and sent to Pakokku Prison.

On their way there, they weren’t permitted to speak to each other. All they could do was exchange glances, which was enough to express the pain they were all in. Nat Htet’s face was swollen from the countless punches it had received. Their female comrade was doubled over with abdominal pain. Kyaw Gyi’s head and body also throbbed, but as the senior of the other two, he tried not to show it.

Powerless to do anything else, he decided to risk speaking a few words of encouragement.

“This is nothing,” he said. “Just relax.”

Members of the 96 Soldiers group sit with Nay Htet’s body (Supplied)

Imprisonment and escape

As prisoners, Kyaw Gyi and Nay Htet were placed in adjacent cells. They soon met other inmates, including one named Wai Phyo who was also facing terrorism charges. 

A student activist in his 20s, Wai Phyo was determined to rejoin the fight against the regime, something that he could not do if he remained behind bars. And so, together with Kyaw Gyi, Nay Htet and two other prisoners named Myo Lin Aung and Saw Lin Htun, he hatched a plan to escape.

There was a light rain falling during the early hours of September 11, the morning the five would-be jailbreakers decided to make their move. It was still dark out when they slipped out of the dormitory where they all slept.

At the prison wall, Kyaw Gyi kneeled down and told the others to step onto his shoulders so that they could reach the top and pull themselves up. After several failed attempts, he and Nay Htet switched positions, and the other three managed to get over the wall. Kyaw Gyi went last because he wanted to be the one to pull his friend to freedom.

It wasn’t an easy task, as barbed wire was cutting into Kyaw Gyi’s skin the whole time that he was trying to maintain his grip on Nay Htet’s wrists. Three times, Nay Htet fell back to the ground. Finally, he decided to tell the others to go on without him, before they were all caught.

But Kyaw Gyi was not prepared to give up so easily. Removing his longyi, he lowered it down to Nay Htet and used it pull him up to the top of the wall. In this way, all five were able to make a daring escape.

Despite their success, however, Nay Htet was not happy. The woman who was with him and Kyaw Gyi when they were all arrested two and a half months earlier was not just a comrade, but also his girlfriend. They had fallen in love during their time in the jungle, and now he had been forced to leave her behind.

Fearing for her safety, he resolved to return and rescue her as soon as he could. But the thought of how the regime’s prison officials, with their well-deserved reputation for brutality, might be treating her continued to haunt him until his death a little more than a month later.

Nay Htet as a young student, before the February 2021 military coup (Supplied)

Admired by all

Nay Htet was a second-year zoology student at Yangon’s Dagon University when the military staged a coup that threatened to rob his generation of its future. Like so many others, he was determined not to allow that to happen.

A fellow student who remembers Nay Htet’s reaction to the military takeover recalled that he was willing from the start to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others.

“He wanted us to have a good life. He always said, ‘I will live in the jungle, and you can all go abroad.’ He told us that he wouldn’t be coming back—that he wouldn’t come back alive,” said the female former classmate.

Tall and well-built, Nay Htet was nicknamed “Commando” by his new comrades in arms, who were also struck by his fearlessness. 

“He was willing to do anything related to fighting. I’ve always been afraid of explosives. I was taught how to plant them, but I just couldn’t do it. But he assembled his own explosives and planted them himself,” said Nyan Gyi, a fellow member of the 96 Soldiers group.

“I always warned him not to be too daring or stubborn. I told him that his overconfidence could get him into trouble,” he added.

He wanted us to have a good life. He always said, ‘I will live in the jungle, and you can all go abroad.’ He told us that he wouldn’t be coming back—that he wouldn’t come back alive

He was also criticised sometimes for speaking too curtly. But the fact remained that he was always ready to do his utmost for those who fought alongside him, and so won the admiration of all.

“After he broke out of jail, he could have gone somewhere safe to lie low for a while. But he didn’t. He came right back to fight with us,” said Nyan Gyi.

Local civilians join a funeral procession for Nay Htet, who was killed in battle in Sagaing Region’s Wetlet Township on October 17 (Supplied)

Zayar Lwin, the leader of their group, said that breaking out of prison only strengthened Nay Htet’s resolve.

“It made him more determined, because he really wanted to rescue his girlfriend and his other comrades left behind in prison,” he said.

Killed just a month and a week after regaining his freedom, Nay Htet was also honoured by the many local civilians who attended his funeral. Although he once told his comrades not to hold a religious ceremony for him if he was killed in action, in the end, they made sure that he received not only Buddhist rites, but also a hero’s send-off.

Resistance fighters, followed by a procession of locals, marched solemnly along a footpath to his final resting place, their faces sad but at the same time full of the same ardour that had defined Nay Htet’s brief existence.

His parents, who he contacted regularly by phone after leaving Yangon, had lost their home because of Nay Htet’s involvement in the resistance. But even after this loss was compounded by news of their son’s death, it failed to diminish a much deeper emotion that they felt at his memory.

“I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to fight more battles. But I’m proud that he died in action,” his father said. 

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