The train driver who died defying Myanmar’s dictators

On an August morning at a wet market in Mandalay’s industrial suburbs, a 50-year-old man was selling noodles and cheerfully greeting fellow vendors and customers alike.  

Win Ko Oo was well-known for his friendliness. But not everyone who had grown familiar with his smiling face knew that he had once had a very different life.

When the year began, Win Ko Oo was a train driver with 25 years’ experience. But then the army seized power, and everything changed. As someone who had lived through the aftermath of a similar coup in 1988, he knew he had to resist the return of military rule.

A month after Myanmar’s elected civilian government was overthrown, Win Ko Oo made up his mind to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that was sweeping the country.

“I hesitated at first because I had to think about my family. We had nowhere else to go. But in the end, my hatred for the regime outweighed my concerns about the hardships we would have to face, so I quit,” he told Myanmar Now that August morning. 

Mandalay’s railway workers were among the first to join the movement in large numbers. In the department that Win Ko Oo belonged to, 285 of 319 staff members walked off the job in an effort to deny the regime control over state mechanisms.

This resulted in hundreds of railway employees and their families being forced to leave the housing compound where most of the striking workers lived. 

But as one of the leaders of the protesting workers, Win Ko Oo also had another reason to worry: a warrant for his arrest on charges of incitement.

After joining the Civil Disobedience Movement, Win Ko Oo supported his family by selling noodles at a market in Mandalay (Supplied)

Lying low

Feeling that he couldn’t afford to take any more chances, Win Ko Oo decided it was time to slip under the junta’s radar for a while. A relative gave him a place to stay, but he still had to make a living, so he started selling noodles in the market.

With a son in university and a daughter already married, this was not an easy move for him to make. He was used to being the family’s provider, but now that their only income was from his wife’s work as a seamstress, he had to swallow his pride.

“I was so ashamed at first that I wanted to cry. I was new to this business, so it was also pretty challenging for me to get the hang of it. But once I started earning money again, I came to like it,” he said.

Although Win Ko Oo spoke freely about his experiences since the coup, Myanmar Now decided not to publish his story after learning about it last month to avoid putting him at risk.

Since then, however, there has been another development that has made it more important to reveal the enormous price he has paid for following his convictions.

At around 5am on September 9, as he was making an early-morning delivery, Win Ko Oo was savagely beaten by a group of eight men who also stole his motorcycle. Ten days later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

No investigation

During the remaining days of his life, an unconscious Win Ko Oo was treated at a private hospital for a broken skull and multiple injuries to his arms, legs and ribs. Finally, however, it became clear that he would never recover.

“We decided to bring him home on September 18 as he wasn’t getting any better. He died at home the next day,” said a family member.

There was never any investigation into the attack, in part due to the fact that his family didn’t report it because they didn’t trust the police.

The indifference of the police to this case even after it became public would seem to justify the family’s suspicions, according to a friend who dismissed any suggestion that Win Ko Oo was simply the victim of a robbery that went horribly wrong.

“It couldn’t have been because they wanted his motorcycle. There was no need to beat him like that just to take his motorcycle. It’s more likely that he died because he was a leader of the railway workers who joined the CDM,” the friend said.

Win Ko Oo’s family declined to comment on his death, but said that he never stopped believing in the struggle to create a better future for the people of Myanmar.

“He always said that he wanted this revolution to succeed, that he wanted to operate trains again, and that he wanted to send his grandchildren to school,” said a family member.

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