Girl's death 24 years ago haunts quest for justice in reformist Myanmar

YANGON Sun Sep 16, 2012 10:24am EDT

Win Kyu (L) and Khin Htay Win, father and mother of Win Maw Oo, hold a picture taken during the 1988 revolution in which their injured daughter is carried by two doctors, at their home in Yangon September 13, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

Win Kyu (L) and Khin Htay Win, father and mother of Win Maw Oo, hold a picture taken during the 1988 revolution in which their injured daughter is carried by two doctors, at their home in Yangon September 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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YANGON (Reuters) - The first two bullets struck her legs. The third one ploughed through her chest, shredding a lung and drenching her uniform with blood.

The death of schoolgirl Win Maw Oo, 16, shot by soldiers during Myanmar's military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988, so torments her family that they have yet to perform the Buddhist rites to release her soul into the afterlife.

"We still can't forget her," says Khine Nyein Ei, 30, as she prepares to mark the anniversary of her sister's death on Wednesday. "The tears never dry."

The authorities haven't forgotten either. Political reform in Myanmar is fostering greater openness about past atrocities but little accountability, especially when the country's still-powerful military is involved. Today, Win Maw Oo's impoverished and long-suffering family remains under police surveillance.

Hers is one of many families now demanding recognition for abuses suffered by loved ones under decades of dictatorship. Their struggle for justice could test both the sincerity of President Thein Sein's reforms and the patience of Myanmar's untouchable and seemingly remorseless military.

It also runs counter to a political mood of reconciliation promoted by both opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the once-critical Western governments now engaging with a government packed with former generals. The United States and European Union have lifted most sanctions against Myanmar.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) no longer calls for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. Instead, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate wants South African-style "restorative justice", which precludes putting members of the former regime on trial.

But unlike post-apartheid South Africa, post-junta Myanmar has no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where victims and perpetrators of violence can put their country's tortured history to rest.

Myanmar's toothless Human Rights Commission is only empowered to investigate alleged abuses committed since its formation in September last year.

None of this has deterred the many bereaved relatives yearning for justice and closure. "So many people died in the 1988 revolution," says Khine Nyein Ei. "They also had families. It hurts so much to lose a son or daughter or sister. Everyone feels the same way."

Her family have turned their one-room shack on a swamp in Yangon's northern suburbs into a shrine for Win Maw Oo. Its thin bamboo walls are decorated with a harrowing image of the schoolgirl taken by an American photographer just moments after she was shot.

During their interview with Reuters, the first by the foreign media, two plainclothes police with walkie-talkies loitered outside, reported neighbors.

Her mother Khin Htay Win, 59, recalls begging her daughter not to join the near-daily protests in Yangon. Martial law had been declared and the soldiers were expected to be merciless.

"If they dare to shoot, then we dare to die," her daughter told her.

She was marching with fellow protesters towards the U.S. embassy when the troops opened fire. Everyone scattered, recalls Steve Lehman, who photographed two medics carrying Win Maw Oo's bloodied body to a nearby ambulance.

"The military was clearing the streets and had shot many people," he says. "I was shocked by how they were killing girls."

Yangon General Hospital, where Win Maw Oo was taken, was overwhelmed with dead and wounded protesters. "It was like a horror movie," says Lehman. Thousands of people were killed or injured during the crackdown.

DEATHBED PROMISE

The surgeon who operated on Win Maw Oo didn't save her life. But he did buy her time. Her father, Win Kyu, struggled to reach the hospital through streets patrolled by trigger-happy soldiers. He arrived to hear her last words.

"Can you promise me something?" she asked. Then she made her father swear not to perform the last rites for her "until you get the democracy we asked for". Then she died.

Bodies bearing gunshot wounds were often taken away by the authorities and secretly cremated to hide the death toll. Win Kyu could only retrieve his daughter's body from the morgue after a friendly doctor lied to the military that she had died of bone cancer.

On the post mortem report, which the family has kept and laminated, the "cause of death" is left blank.

Win Kyu didn't know about Lehman's now-iconic photo until he saw it in a magazine some two years after his daughter's death. "It awoke my sadness again," he said.

For years, Win Kyu burned with rage: "Whenever I saw soldiers or police I wanted to kill them." Today, his anger has subsided, but he still bristles at the military's version of events.

It labeled his daughter and other protesters "looters", while state-run media still trumpets the former junta's role in establishing Myanmar's "discipline-flourishing democracy".

Finding people who disagree with this account is easy in Yangon, where Internet access is widespread and critical biographies of former dictator Than Shwe are discreetly sold at street stalls.

Myanmar's democratic progress "has nothing to do with" the military, Win Kyu says. He attributes it to the sacrifices of ordinary people such as his daughter, as well as to Buddhist monks who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution -- another democracy uprising bloodily suppressed by the military.

"EVERYONE MUST DIE ONE DAY"

But government soldiers aren't the only ones with blood on their hands.

San San Aye's father escaped Rangoon in 1989 to join the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed insurgent group formed by activists fleeing the junta's crackdown. He died three years later of natural causes. Or so she thought.

Then, in February, she learned that he had been among 107 soldiers arrested and tortured for weeks on ABSDF orders in the early 1990s on suspicion of spying for the government.

Her father, Maung Sein, and 37 others were either executed or died from their injuries. The horrific episode - victims were electrocuted, crucified, decapitated and shot - is recalled in a book published in May and freely available in Yangon bookstores.

San San Aye, 42, a teacher in northern Yangon, filed a police complaint in August against the seven ABSDF leaders she believes are responsible. She says police in remote Kachin State, where the killings took place, are now investigating.

"I know everyone must die one day," she says, struggling to hold back tears. "But my father was wrongly accused. I want the truth to be known." The relatives of another ABSDF victim have also filed a complaint, she says.

Meanwhile, the family of schoolgirl Win Maw Oo prepare for the annual remembrance ceremony they have held every September, despite intimidation by the authorities. One year, the army parked armored cars with machine-guns outside their house.

Suu Kyi attended the ceremony in 1997, between periods of house arrest. "So many police came," recalls sister Khine Nyein Ei.

This year, for the first time, the family will hold a public ceremony in a temple. Permission was granted by the local authorities on condition that no more than 200 people attend.

Among the expected guests are celebrated democrat Min Ko Naing, who was jailed for 15 years for his role in the 1988 protests, and Win Tin, who co-founded the NLD with Suu Kyi just eight days after the schoolgirl was killed.

Even so, Win Maw Oo's father won't be saying the last rites. He says the "true democracy" she wanted must wait until Myanmar holds its 2015 general election. The NLD is expected to win it comfortably, after a landslide victory in April by-elections swept Suu Kyi and 43 other party candidates into parliament.

Even this will not appease Aung Ko Ko, 27, who was just three years old when those three bullets felled his schoolgirl sister. He wants her killers exposed.

"They still have to pay for their mistakes," he says.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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