Twenty-year-old law student Theint Sandi Soe had been visiting her mother and four-year-old sister at their family home in Mogok when military police burst in and detained all three of them.
Against the backdrop of Myanmar’s ongoing military coup, the arrests themselves did not send shockwaves. It was what happened next—an act of courageous defiance met with draconian law enforcement measures—that propelled Theint Sandi Soe’s name into news headlines, and that continues to fuel a frantic search for answers amid reports that the law student’s health is rapidly deteriorating in prison.
Bargaining Chips Backfire
Few were surprised when Myanmar’s military police burst into the family home; after all, Theint Sandi Soe’s father, U Soe Htay, was a prominent local protest leader, making him an obvious target for the oppressive regime. Since Myanmar’s military leadership, known as the Tatmadaw, overthrew the country’s elected government in February, millions have taken to the streets in protest. As of August 9, more than 7,000 people had been arrested, 962 had died (including, according to Human Rights Watch, some 75 children), and nearly 2,000 people remained in hiding from arrest warrants, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights advocacy group that tallies these figures daily.
Family of Theint Sandi Soe.
Few were surprised, even, when the authorities instead arrested his wife and two daughters after discovering their target was not at home the morning of June 13, despite only having arrived with a search warrant for the home and an arrest warrant for U Soe Htay. Reports of this grim tactic, detaining an activist’s family to lure him or her out of hiding, have abounded since the early days of the coup.
Upon hearing Theint Sandi Soe had been detained, her friends worried for her, especially given her ongoing struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, which required frequent treatment and vigilant medical observation. Still, none of the individuals whom we spoke with for this interview had suspected at that point that she would be formally convicted of a crime, let alone sentenced to prison time. Common wisdom held that the authorities would use the women as bargaining chips to compel U Soe Htay to come forward, before ultimately releasing them.
The release of the youngest daughter, four-year-old Su Htet Win, on June 30—two days after her fifth birthday, according to local media—seemed at first to affirm this theory. Had they played by the rules, Theint Sandi Soe and her mother Kyi Kyi Khaing, 44, would likely have walked free.
But Theint Sandi Soe and Kyi Kyi Khaing refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a court purporting to uphold the laws imposed by the Tatmadaw, whose very rule was illegal as far as they were concerned. The two women protested a routine hearing, and shortly thereafter were sentenced to three years incarceration on the grounds that they had violated article 505(a) of Myanmar’s penal code—a law on incitement that has attracted much controversy.
In the aftermath of the sentencing, as Theint Sandi Soe’s family remains in hiding, we spoke with close friends about the promising young law student and the days and months leading up to her sentencing. JURIST conducted these interviews via video chat from Myanmar, with the assistance of a local translator on JURIST’s staff. Our interviewees will remain anonymous for the time being due to concerns for their security.
Her Father’s Daughter
By the time his wife and daughters were arrested, U Soe Htay had come full circle. He first made a name for himself as an impassioned proponent of Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising—a movement that championed democratic values, before being violently suppressed by the country’s military dictatorship. In more recent years, Myanmar appeared to have been charting a gradual course toward democracy; in 2008, the Tatmadaw established a new constitution that secured the military’s grip on power while also opening the door to civilian leadership. Between 2011 and 2021, power shifted from the military junta to a pro-military civilian administration before ultimately reaching the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been broadly recognized as the face of the 1988 uprising, and who had spent some 15 years under house arrest by the time of her release in 2010. Once the Tatmadaw overthrew the NLD in February 2021, U Soe Htay swiftly reclaimed his role in the pro-democratic protest movement.
Given their lack of a relevant warrant, the Tatmadaw forces were likely unaware at the time of her arrest that Theint Sandi Soe had also been an active member of the opposition. “She thought that the coup was a violation of human rights, and she protested both on the streets and via social media,” said a close friend who had spent three years living in student dorms with Theint Sandi Soe. “She quickly joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and advocated vocally for the opposition.”
The impassioned advocacy was in keeping with her character: “She lives for the truth,“ said another friend and fellow law student. “And she’s so brave. If she believes something is right, she will never give up in fighting for it.”
Despite their innate understanding of Theint Sandi Soe’s courage and commitment to the movement, her friends were frantic upon learning of her arrest. “When I found out she had been detained, I panicked. Before she was arrested, she had been very active in donating money to the CDM. I was worried that if I spoke out too much, she’d be tortured,” said one friend, who explained that her initial impulse was to attempt to control the potential damage from Theint Sandi Soe’s protest activities.
“The first thing I did was get access to her and her mom’s social media accounts and deactivate them. I then set about looking for lawyers to put her family in touch with. All the while I felt like I was in a mist—I didn’t know what was happening or what I could do, and just felt so helpless and angry,” they said.
Much of what is known about Theint Sandi Soe’s prison conditions came from her five-year-old sister, who remained with her mother and older sister for nearly three weeks after their arrest.
“Her baby sister told me how horrible it was in there—how they were forced to sit in stress positions for hours at a time, how they were forced to bathe in toilet water,” a friend and former dormmate recounted.
Other detainees who were subsequently released also spoke of her declining health. “We were told that she’s extremely ill, and that she has not received any medical treatment for her rheumatoid arthritis,” the friend said.
Audibly distressed as she spoke of the situation, the friend added: “I was so upset when I heard about her worsening health, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there’s really no difference between her and the other detainees who have been arrested by the military junta. They are so used to torturing people by this point—they have no humanity left in them,” she said. “This has become everyday life for the people of Myanmar.”
Her friends were thrown for another loop when, less than a month after they were arrested, following their refusal to comply with what they saw as a show trial, Theint Sandi Soe and Kyi Kyi Khaing were sentenced to three years in prison for incitement.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard she was sentenced so quickly. I figured she and her mom were essentially being held as bargaining chips, as a means of forcing her dad to present himself to the authorities. But I wasn’t as shocked when I learned that she had protested the legitimacy of the court and the judges, who were not members of the CDM. I don’t think her bravery just came because she was arrested; I think her bravery is in her character,” a friend said.
Another friend seconded this point: “I think her courage is in her character. If I were arrested, I wouldn’t have the courage to protest the court. She is unbelievably brave.”
Reverberations Across the Globe
The degradation of Myanmar’s justice system has been lambasted by human rights advocacy groups.
As stated by Human Rights Watch Asia researcher Shayna Bauchner in a recent article: “These bogus military tribunals are handing down unfair and unappealable death sentences under direction from a commander sanctioned by the European Union, United States, and others for committing the worst crimes under international law… “The United Nations, EU, US, and other governments should be demanding the release of all those wrongfully imprisoned and ramping up pressure so the junta knows that what they do—even behind prison doors—is being watched.”
In an open letter, Amnesty International has expressed similar sentiments: “Activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and other individuals opposed to the military’s brutal crackdown have been arrested and charged on spurious grounds. There are allegations of those arrested and detained being denied the rights to prompt access to legal counsel of their own choice and other fair trial rights. Those detained are also allegedly being denied access to healthcare and the medications on which they are reliant. Amnesty International has also received credible reports of ill-treatment and torture, including at least two deaths in custody.”
As they continue to work through the fallout of her arrest, Theint Sandi Soe’s friends are left with a palpable sense of anger. “The way her trial started, the way it ended, and the way she was arrested was simply evil. She wasn’t given the chance to defend her case, and the military fabricated a case against her. They charged her without any reasonable grounds,” one said.
But they remain undeterred in their fight against injustice: “Unjust and unlawful as her and so many other stories are, we hope that law students outside of Myanmar will help protest, raise awareness and fight for the release of all our political prisoners.”
In the days that have passed since our interview with her friends, Theint Sandi Soe has been diagnosed with COVID, which at present is spreading uncontrolled through Myanmar. With this diagnosis compounding her chronic condition, those who know the fearless law student, as well as members of the Burmese diaspora around the world, are watching the story unfold with increasing concern for her health.