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A shrine to 17-year-old Myanmar protester Khant Nyar Hein, who was killed by security forces. Photo: Min Ye Kyaw

‘They are shooting at our kids’ heads’: in Myanmar, a dead 17-year-old’s family mourns the loss of hope

  • Khant Nyar Hein, a first-year medical student from an ethnic Chinese family, was shot dead by security forces at a protest on Sunday
  • His father is among those who want Beijing to take a stronger stance against the generals behind the February 1 coup

Through the haze of grief and pain, there is one moment of clarity to which the family of Khant Nyar Hein keep returning: they have lost everything since they lost him.

The 17-year-old, a first-year medical student, was killed by Myanmar security forces on Sunday, one of the more than 224 residents of Southeast Asia’s poorest nation who have died while opposing the February 1 military coup that unseated the democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

After his funeral on Tuesday, Khant’s family, who are of ethnic Chinese descent, turned a table in the living room of their two-storey house in Yangon’s Tamwe Township into a makeshift altar.

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On it is a recent photograph of Khant surrounded by flowers, joss sticks and offerings of fruit. It’s a sombre addition to what is clearly a shrine built from years of pride and love – Khant’s cheeky grin beams down from photographs, some with friends, others of him receiving the many awards and trophies for academic prowess that gleam from shelves.

There are other photographs that have been added in recent commemoration, along with notes from friends and family. “We all miss you, my brother,” one reads.


Mother grieves for ethnic Chinese son killed in one of Myanmar’s bloodiest protests

Mother grieves for ethnic Chinese son killed in one of Myanmar’s bloodiest protests

Known as a smart, kind and friendly student, Khant had just begun classes at the University of Medicine 1 in Yangon. His father, Thein Zaw, often recalls Khant’s words when he started his studies: “Once I become a doctor, I will treat all my poor patients without any charge, Papa.”

Khant’s mother and sister, consumed by grief, keep replaying the day they lost him.

“We didn’t even want a scratch on him. Now he’s gone. My life’s totally gone,” said his mother Kyu Kyu Thin, 42, the tears taking over once more. “Sometimes I wish it was a dream.”

I wish I had stopped him ... I never thought he would get shot.
Theint Hnin Yee, Khant’s sister

At the funeral, she blasted those responsible for the violence that has ensued since the military takeover. “My heart aches,” she said. “You need to think of us, the common folk. What we need is democracy. What we need is justice. What we need is freedom.”

His 15-year-old sister, Theint Hnin Yee, keeps replaying the day in her head. “I wish I had stopped him,” she said. “He told me to stay behind since he was worried about me. I gave him my safety helmet since he likes it. I never thought he would get shot. I asked him to come back early on that day.”


On Sunday morning, as Khant came downstairs dressed all in black with the exception of a stark white shirt, his father had warned him not to go to a nearby protest. The casualties were adding up, 45-year-old Thein told his son, as security forces stepped up their increasingly violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters.

“He was having his breakfast, mohinga,” Thein recalled, referring to the fish and rice noodle staple of Myanmar cuisine. “We talked for two hours and he went back to his room upstairs. I followed him and saw he was using his phone. He left around 2pm when I was fixing a lock in the kitchen.”

A moment later, Khant’s grandmother asked for him, but he was nowhere to be found; his sister said he had already left. Thein grabbed his bicycle and hurried out in search of his son on Awba Road, where Khant had joined protests for the past month.

Then he heard the gunshots. They were on the other side of the street, in front of Police Station No 40 in Tamwe, and protesters running past told Thein someone had been shot dead – but he didn’t yet know it was Khant.

“Since the gunshots didn’t stop at that time, I hid in the street and went back home later,” Thein said. “They were firing into the street from the police station. I couldn’t find him.”

At 3pm, he received a phone call from a friend of Khant’s, telling him his son had been shot and asking him to check for updates on social media.

“I still couldn’t believe that my son was the one who had been shot among the many protesters. Then I ran to the police station and asked about my son. They didn’t let me in. One police officer later told me an ambulance had taken him to a general hospital in Mingaladon.”

When the family arrived, hospital staff refused to let them in, telling them to wait outside. At 5pm, a police officer gave Thein the horrible news that his son had died. Still in disbelief, he asked if he could see Khant’s body, but was told he could only see photographs the police had taken, after which he had to return home.

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Though the police called him that night and promised further contact in the morning, there was no word the next day. Only with the help of a lawyer and some of Khant’s friends could Thein retrieve his son’s body from the hospital; he asked to bring his son home for the night, to mourn, but this was not allowed, so the body was taken to a nearby cemetery.

Witnesses from the protest said Khant was shot as he was trying to retreat. Thein said he was not shown the bullet that killed his son, but he was told it went from the bottom of his right ear to his left temple.

“They dragged him to the police station once he got shot,” Thein said, adding that a girl who was protesting with Khant tried to save but was instead beaten and arrested. She was later charged with Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s penal code – which purports to address “incitement”, according to Amnesty International – and was on Thursday remanded for 14 days at Yangon’s Insein Prison.

Friends and family attend Khant’s funeral on Tuesday. Photo: Handout


Khant was born in Latha Township, part of Yangon’s Chinatown, which is home to most of Yangon’s ethnically Chinese population. Thein said he was aware of local anger towards Beijing as it was believed to be supporting the junta, and added that Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese stood with the rest of the country’s people, no matter their ethnic group, for democracy.

“Even though our ancestors came from China, my great grandparents were born and raised in Myanmar. So we are in the same boat,” Thein said, though he added that there were differences between the people of mainland China and Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese population in terms of “belief, attitude and sympathy”.

“If Beijing keeps supporting the coup, I can’t say anything besides the blood is on [President Xi Jinping’s] hands,” he said.

The protest movement in Myanmar is keenly aware of who in the international community has or has not spoken out against military chief Min Aung Hlaing and the generals behind the coup. China and Russia are not seen as having been as tough on the junta as Western nations; the two countries in February blocked the United Nations Security Council from condemning the coup, drawing the ire of demonstrators in Myanmar.

Thein’s anger flares white-hot when he discusses the violence being used against young people and peaceful protesters.

“We shed tears even before my son’s death since they were already killing many youths. It’s not about one family any more, it’s about all families and citizens of Myanmar who have lost their precious children,” he said. “Those kids don’t have a single needle that can hurt others. No parents, not even a single citizen, can stand the fact that they are shooting at our kids’ heads.”

There was more violence on Friday, when security forces shot dead at least eight protesters in the central town of Aungban.

“I want all of you to make sure you don’t get killed,” Thein said, addressing every young person who has taken to the streets of Myanmar as if they were his own blood.

“My son has already given his life. Now I do not want to see you sacrificed, too. Be prepared to protect yourselves, my sons and daughters.”