In-Depth

The ‘Apple’ that fell in 44th street

In early August, 29-year-old Wai Wai Myint and her 35-year-old husband Soe Myat Thu decided to leave Yangon for a short trip to Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin. 

The couple, who had recently recovered from Covid-19, just wanted a break from the stress of life in Myanmar’s largest city, where post-coup political tensions and anxiety over the third wave of the pandemic seemed to be coming to a head.

They took their much-needed vacation and were due to return to Yangon by plane on August 10. However, when they learned that their flight would be delayed until the afternoon, they decided to rent a car the day before so they could get back to Yangon by morning. It proved to be a fateful decision.

Just hours after they arrived at their home on 45th Street at around 9am, Wai Wai Myint—known to her friends and family as “Apple”—would be lying dead in a nearby alleyway.

After resting from their journey, Wai Wai Myint went out at around 3pm to meet with friends who lived a short distance away on 44th Street, according to her husband.

“She took 10 or 15 thousand kyat with her to give to her friends. It was soon after she left that it happened,” he recalled.

“I can’t help but blame myself. If only we taken the plane, we wouldn’t have arrived until 6pm,” he said as he tried to make sense of the tragic events of that day.

Wai Wai Myint holds a sign showing her support for Myanmar’s ousted civilian government (Supplied)

Lost hope

Soe Myat Thu learned about his wife’s death on social media.

There were reports that five people had fallen from the rooftop of a three-storey apartment building on 44th Street. The details were unclear, but it appeared that they had been trying to escape from a raid by junta troops looking to arrest members of the anti-coup resistance movement.

It was believed that the 50-foot fall had left at least some of the wanted activists dead. Photos shared on Facebook showed seemingly lifeless bodies lying in an alley behind No. 38, 44th Street, including one of a woman in a blue and yellow dress, like the one worn by Snow White in the classic Disney movie.

It was the sight of this dress that shook Soe Myat Thu to the core. 

“I kept hoping that it wasn’t her, but at the same time, I could see that the woman in the photo was wearing the exact same dress as my wife,” he said.

Even in the face of this evidence, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that it was Wai Wai Myint. He posted something on Facebook to see if he could get more information, and it slowly began to sink in that it was true: his wife was dead.

But this did not end his quest for some glimmer of hope. The following morning, he contacted a doctor he knew at Yangon General Hospital to ask if she had been admitted there. When this failed to yield any new leads, he went directly to the hospital’s emergency department, only to be told that they hadn’t seen any patients fitting Wai Wai Myint’s description.

The Facebook post said there was one person barely alive at the hospital. I couldn’t help but hope it was my wife. She was always a lucky person

He then went from one cemetery to another, beginning with the Kyu Chaung Cemetery in Shwepyithar Township, where the military often takes the bodies of its victims. Next he went to the Kyi Su Cemetery in South Dagon, and then the Yay Way Cemetery in North Okkalapa.

As his grim search continued, he read on Facebook that the five people who had fallen from the building the day before had all been taken to the 1,000-bed military hospital in Mingaladon Township, where one was said to still be clinging to life.

“The post said there was one person barely alive at the hospital. I couldn’t help but hope it was my wife. She was always a lucky person,” said Soe Myat Thu.

But the thought that he might see Wai Wai Myint alive again proved short-lived. Friends at the hospital confirmed that she had died. Four hours later, he would see this with his own eyes when he went to identify her. 

After making a futile request for permission to take her body, which was tightly wrapped in white cloth, for burial (she had often said that she didn’t want to be cremated), he was denied another last wish: to keep her ashes.

“We couldn’t take her body home. And we couldn’t have her ashes,” he recalled sadly.

“They said that they couldn’t make any exceptions—that everything had to be done according to the orders from the higher ups.”

‘A peculiar girl’

He still hasn’t told their five-year-old daughter, Nan Hteik Yati, what happened to her mother. 

A gemstone dealer by profession, Wai Wai Myint was often away on business. Perhaps that is where their daughter thinks she is now, Soe Myat Thu suggested, before adding that that may no longer be the case.

“I think she found out about her death this morning while we were praying with the monks. She started crying while she was praying,” he said.

Wai Wai Myint was a devoted mother who would only bend her will to please their daughter, Soe Myat Thu recalled, remembering his wife as the sort of person who would never give up in a fight.   

“When we argued, she would only start talking to me again if our daughter told her to,” he said.

Wai Wai Myint had lost both of her parents—her father when she was just a child, and her mother while she was in university.

Perhaps it was this that made her so fiercely independent, and at the same time protective towards those who had suffered some injustice, according to some of her closest friends.

“Many people called her Apple. She was such a peculiar girl. She couldn’t stand injustice. She was fierce, and tall—she always wore high heels,” said Htet Arkar Kyaw, a former classmate.

“By fierce, I don’t mean she fought with or bullied people. She was a brave girl. Everyone at school knew that. She used to fight with teachers known to act like dictators with students,” he recalled.

She always stood on the side of the weak

An honours graduate with a degree in English language from Dagon University, she always spoke up when she had to.

“She would always ask the teachers questions, and never gave up until she got an answer that satisfied her. And she was never afraid to tell the truth,” said her close friend Soe Soe.

Seen as “mouthy” by some, to those who really knew her, she was best known for being always ready to come to the aid of those in need, Soe Soe added.

Her husband said this applied as much to strangers as to friends.

“There were many times when she would yell at restaurant managers for scolding waiters,” he said. “She always stood on the side of the weak.”

‘No interest in politics’

Until the coup in February, however, Wai Wai Myint’s strong sense of justice never really extended to the political sphere. 

As relatively well-off members of Myanmar’s middle class, she and her husband had friends who supported both the now-ousted National League for Democracy and the army’s proxy party, and they felt no desire to pick sides.

“We weren’t interested in politics at all before the coup. We weren’t on either side,” said Soe Myat Thu, noting that he and his wife both preferred to put most of their energy into their work, which in his case was running a private dental clinic.

But that changed just over a week after the military takeover, when a young protester in Naypyitaw became the first casualty of the newly installed regime’s brutal efforts to crush opposition to its rule.

Mya Thwe Thwe Khine was just 19 years old when she was shot in the head during an anti-coup demonstration in the capital on February 9. Her subsequent death a few days later made a deep impression on Wai Wai Myint.

“It shattered her when Mya Thwe Thwe Khine died,” Soe Myat Thu said about the change in his wife’s political views.

Over the ensuing months, she joined many protests, even when the junta was massacring dozens or even hundreds of civilians on a daily basis. She did so against her husband’s wishes, and eventually stopped telling him what she was doing, he said.  

Much of her activity involved cooking and donating food to protesters, according to her friend Soe Soe. In April, she was briefly detained for her involvement in the resistance movement.

She’d always say that she wanted to swap places with the people who died. She just couldn’t stand injustice

During her detention, she suffered a spinal injury after she was slapped and kicked by her captors. But more than that, it pained her that she was released while others were forced to remain behind bars. 

“She wasn’t happy, because only she and a few other people were freed. She felt guilty about that. She’d come to me and cry about it,” said Soe Soe.

“She’d always say that she wanted to swap places with the people who died. She just couldn’t stand injustice,” she added.

Through her work in the movement, she made many new friends, including those who were with her on the day she died. According to the junta, Wai Wai Myint was guilty of supporting a group of youths who were making explosives.  

Soe Myat Thu said he didn’t know any of the people she was with when the apartment she was in was raided. The four others who fell that day were all young men.

In Soe Myat Thu’s mind, there is no doubt about who is responsible for his wife’s death. She herself had told him that she would take her own life before she allowed herself to be captured and tortured again.

“I’m not the only one crying now. It’s all the system’s fault. My wife wouldn’t have had to die if it wasn’t for that,” he said, laying the blame for her death squarely on the shoulders of Myanmar’s military rulers.

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