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A Tiny Glimpse Inside Life and Legacy of Burma’s Student Leader Salai Tin Maung Oo

13 September 2009

Van Biak Thang (26 June, 2009) You can kill my body but you can never kill my beliefs and what I stood for. I will never kneel down to your military boots! – Salai Tin Maung Oo

It was at 4pm early in the morning 33 years ago today that Burma’s student leader, Salai Tin Maung Oo, was hanged inside the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon by the Ne Win-led military authority called Burmese Socialist Programme Party.

Salai Tin Maung Oo, an ethnic Chin leader, was the first student in Burma to be officially hanged to death for organizing and leading student protests against the military regime. Remembered as Burma’s first student martyr, Salai Tin Maung Oo was sentenced to death on 26th June, 1976 at the age of 25 for his political beliefs and selfless fight for democracy, justice and peace in Burma.

A true Salai, as described by his pal Salai Kipp Kho Lian, Tin Maung Oo, a Zoology student of Rangoon Arts and Science University, got actively involved in student movements and activities. Among many activities, he was best-known for leading two famous demonstrations: U Thant’s funeral uprising on 5 December 1974 and the Shwedagon Strike on 6 June 1975.

While organising another uprising known as “Hmine Yar Pyih” (100th anniversary of the revolutionary Thakin Ko Daw Hmine), he was arrested on 22 March 1976 and killed within 3 months on 26 June 1976 without any fair trial and without any lawyer. Salai Tin Maung Oo’s last words included: “Comrades, they are killing me secretly!”

His last words to the executioners remain famous and echo till today: “You [the military regime] can kill my body but you can never kill my beliefs and what I stood for. I will never kneel down to your military boots!”

The Chin student leader was forced to apologise for what he was doing to General Ne Win in exchange for clemency but he refused and was subsequently hanged at Insein Prison, according to Moe Thee Zun of All Burma Students’ Democratic Front in Cries from Insein published in 1996.

Mai Po Po, Salai Tin Maung Oo’s sister, recalled: “Ko Tin Maung Oo was in his early teenage years when he began to express his grief regarding the dynamite explosion of the Students’ Union building in 1962. As he grew up, he became more aware of the injustices surrounding him, particularly those caused by the Burmese military government. Evidently he felt strongly compelled to do something about these injustices.”

“Thus, when he became a 1st-year university student in 1971, majoring in Zoology, he became actively involved in the Students’ Underground Movement,” added his sister who, along with her parents and two brothers, was also arrested and imprisoned in Insein Prison from 1976 until 1980.

For the 1974-1975 academic year, Salai Tin Maung Oo was elected General Secretary of CLCC (Chin Literature and Cultural Committee) after being introduced at the meeting by his prison cellmate and at that time a medical student Dr. Za Hlei Thang and giving a moving speech on the importance of unity especially during critical times.

Ko Kyaw Zwa of Burmese Muslim Association, whose father Maung Maung Lwin was not only a cellmate of Salai Tin Maung Oo in Insein Prison but also a close friend until his death, said: “Salai Tin Maung Oo is a symbol of the students fighting for injustice in Burma. Brave and determined, he was one of our heroes who paved the way in our fight for democracy and freedom against the military regime.”

Salai Tin Maung Oo had been described as being ‘brave, courageous, focused, kind, caring and peace-loving’ by his friends, colleagues and many writers. Mai Po Po said one of his most outstanding qualities was his insatiable generosity, and he was such a giver and would help others including any friends and family members.

Due to his activities with the Students’ Underground Movement, Salai Tin Maung Oo would quite often come home late, according to his sister, who added: “I still recall one day in particular when he came home late and my mother talked to him very seriously saying, ‘My son, I worried about you so much and even shed tears for you.'”

“My brother Ko Tin Maung Oo replied, ‘I am really sorry that I made you worry and cry for me. Mom, there are many mothers who also shed tears for their sons and daughters who will never come home because the military government killed them. Some sons and daughters are in prison, too. I want to wipe the tears away from the eyes of those mothers.’ I remember, every time he came home late, he would pick two wild flowers from the backyard and give them to my mother. I guess he did this to comfort my mom.”

Salai Dr. Pachin, a comrade of Salai Tin Maung Oo during U Than’s funeral student uprising was quoted as saying that he is truly a martyr and we must never forget that he had given his life for the cause of democracy and freedom not only for the Chins but for all the people of Burma.

An email by Htun Aung Kyaw, who worked hand-in-hand with Salai Tin Maung Oo and promised to continue the struggle until the democratic system is established in Burma, said: “He was a great hero and true ‘Salai’. We must carry his legacy. He stood for his belief and kept his dignity till the end.” One verse in the email read:

Salute our fallen brothers and sisters!
Long live the spirit of ‘fighting peacock’!
The revolution of the generation will strike back again.
Ko Tin Maung Oo will live forever in our hearts.

A memorial service and demonstration especially led and organised by Burmese students in commemoration of Salai Tin Maung Oo has long been held across the world. In his memory, an education centre was established in 2006 to provide free tuitions to Burmese refugee children in New Delhi, India.

In the history of political movement and struggle for democracy in Burma, Salai Tin Maung Oo was and will be respected and remembered as a highflying hornbill and ‘big lion’ for his democratic spirit and loyalty, selfless leadership and fight against injustice, and undaunted love and support for peace and freedom.

In reality, Mai Po Po continued, my brother Tin Maung Oo’s last words ‘You can never kill my beliefs and what I stood for’ is really true. “How so? It shows in the fact there was the 1988 Uprising and the 2007 Saffron Uprising. These events show that until the dawn of true democracy in Burma, there will always be those who, like Brother Ko Tin Maung Oo, will strive for freedom and justice and peace,” added the sister, who is currently living with her aging parents in Canada.

Salai Ko Tin Maung Oo was born on November 9th, 1951 in the township of Taungoo to Asho-Chin parents, Salai U Hla Din and Mai Daw Hnin Myaing. He spent his early schooldays in Thamaing. Being interested in sports, he started weight-lifting at the age of 13, won several high school swimming competitions and was selected as the best swimmer at school. Being good at judo and karate, he could also play the violin very well and was an avid reader.

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