Early one morning in October of last year, Kyi Kyi Myint, 55, found herself packed in among several other women at Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison. With a bag slung over her shoulder, she was waiting to drop off some food for her son, 37-year-old activist Lin Htet Naing, including a special treat of noodles in coconut milk.
It was far from the first time she had made such a delivery. Although it had been only four months since her son’s arrest, this was just his latest stint behind bars. The first was a decade and a half ago, when he was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Then came two six-month sentences, both for opposing a new education law, in 2015 and 2020—with the latter ending just days before the military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021.
So Kyi Kyi Myint was no stranger to Myanmar’s penal system. But as the mother of a prominent activist—better known to his comrades as James—she took it all in stride and did what she could to make the ordeal more bearable for her son.
This prison visit was to be her last, however. At around 9:30am on October 19, a series of blasts triggered an even deadlier barrage of bullets, killing eight people, including the woman known to her son’s activist friends as “Amay Kyi,” or Mother Kyi.
It is unclear whether Kyi Kyi Myint was killed by one of the two parcel bombs that went off inside the prison’s delivery reception area that morning, or by gunshots fired by panicked guards. What is known, however, is that an anti-junta guerrilla group calling itself the Special Task Agency of Burma claimed responsibility for the incident, which other regime opponents were quick to denounce. Some even expressed doubts about the professed identity of the group.
The perpetrators claimed that they were targeting prison officials; instead, they killed guards and civilian visitors. Even in a country exposed to nearly two years of endless bloodshed, many were shocked by the sheer senselessness of the attack.
A maternal presence
For James, the loss of his loving mother under these horrific circumstances was nothing less than devastating. After he learned that she was among the dead, he immediately sought permission to attend her funeral.
“The prison authorities denied his request because they said they couldn’t provide security for him,” said Min Thway Thit, a fellow activist and one of James’ closest friends.
In fact, no one from the family was able to pay their final respects to Kyi Kyi Myint. Her husband had died in 2015, and her younger son had fled the country in the wake of the coup. And soon after James was arrested, his wife Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who is also a well-known activist, left Yangon for a liberated area under the control of an ethnic armed group.
It was a sad end, then, for a woman who had always been there for her son and others dedicated to the cause of ending military oppression in Myanmar.
“She always followed her son no matter how far away they sent him,” recalled Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who added that her mother-in-law was not particularly political, but had great faith in James’ determination to do what was right for the country.
Although it was never easy for Kyi Kyi Myint to see her son become a prisoner for his convictions, his latest incarceration was the hardest for her, according to Phyoe Phyoe Aung.
“His last arrest left her heartbroken, because she heard from the activist community about how he was treated while he was being interrogated and after he was imprisoned,” she said.
For years, members of this community had found a rare refuge in the small restaurant that Kyi Kyi Myint opened in 2006 to help support her family. It was where many went for snacks, and for the comfort of her maternal presence.
“We always took pickled bean sprouts from Amay Kyi’s shop to eat at home,” said Min Thway Thit, recalling how the shop had become a popular meeting place for politically active young people.
In the end, however, it became yet another casualty of the coup, closing soon after a power grab that has thrown the entire country into a crisis that continues to spin out of control.
The taste of love
James lost his father when he was in prison in 2015, and was separated from his wife when she was pregnant with their second child in 2020. Both times, Kyi Kyi Myint attended not only to her son’s needs, but also to those of his closest loved ones. But none who knew her ever heard her complain about the burden of having to care for others.
When James was arrested again last year after being charged with incitement for speaking out against the coup, his two-year-old son was with him. The terrified toddler was also taken into custody by the soldiers who came for his father. It took Kyi Kyi Myint two days of pleading with the authorities to win her grandson’s release. It was a relief, and a small victory, to have him back in her arms, but she still grieved for her own adult son, whose life seemed more at risk now than ever before.
Others also worried about Kyi Kyi Myint’s safety. James’s friends urged her to leave Yangon for the border, where many others had gone to escape a regime that was becoming increasingly indiscriminate in its targeting of civilians.
“At first, she said she would consider it, but in the end she decided to stay. She said she wanted to be there for her son,” said Min Thway Thit.
“The incident at the prison happened a week after she made that decision,” he added.
While James will never again taste his mother’s cooking, he will always have the memory of her noodles in coconut milk to remind him of her belief in him, and in his generation’s struggle to finally free his country from military tyranny.