Lily Naing Kyaw: Killing of Myanmar singer unnerves pro-military celebrities

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Lily Naing Kyaw posing in front of a poster of a military propaganda filmIMAGE SOURCE,LILY NAING KYAW/FACEBOOK
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Lily Naing Kyaw posing in front of a poster of a military propaganda film

Myanmar singer Lily Naing Kyaw died in a Yangon hospital a week after being shot in the head – allegedly by gunmen opposed to the military she championed.

Her death has not only shocked military supporters but also celebrities working with the pro-military media.

The 58-year-old was close to top junta leaders who seized power in 2021, plunging the country into war – she was also accused of being their informant.

Two men have been arrested and accused of her killing.

They are said to belong to an urban guerrilla group opposed to the military. Within hours of their arrest, two relatives of one of the men had been killed in apparent retribution.

Ms Kyaw’s killing is the latest in a series of assassinations of high-profile government supporters.

Four days before she was attacked, a well-known nationalist and pro-military supporter, Tint Lwin, was fatally shot in the head while at a tea shop in Yangon, the country’s main city. He had been in hiding after surviving a shooting last summer.

Ms Kyaw was targeted early in the evening of 30 May while parked outside her house in Yangon’s Yankin Township.

First reports said she had been killed, after an image of her lying face down in her car was shared on social media. She was taken to hospital in a critical condition and remained in a coma until she died early on 6 June. Her family confirmed her death with the BBC.

A government statement described it as the “inhumane shooting of an innocent woman”. Seventeen pro-junta organisations issued statements condemning the killing. Ma Ba Tha, a hard-line nationalist Buddhist organisation, demanded better security.

CCTV image released by the military of a man walking past cars while on the phoneIMAGE SOURCE,MILITARY INFORMATION COMMITTEE
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CCTV footage released by the military of a man accused of the shooting

Two men said to be members of the Special Task Force, an armed resistance group based in Yangon, were arrested and accused of the shooting. One of the men, Kaung Zar Ni Hein, was identified from CCTV footage. The other has been named as Kyaw Thura. The suspects are in custody awaiting trial and the military claim they have confessed.

The military have also alleged that prominent student leader D Nyein Lynn was behind the shooting.

On the night of the men’s arrests, the mother and cousin of Kaung Zar Ni Hein, were fatally shot at their home in Yangon. His younger brother and younger sister managed to escape – the security forces are “protecting them from gunmen”, according to a pro-military channel.

There was no independent confirmation of the report – or who attacked the family. No group has claimed it.

Born into a military family, Ms Kyaw rubbed shoulders with military top brass and was often pictured at official events. One of her songs had become the unofficial theme song of Myanmar’s water festival, which celebrates the New Year.

Lily Naing Kyaw with army spokesman General Zaw Min Tun at the Armed Force Day celebrations on 27 March 2023IMAGE SOURCE,LILY NAING KYAW/FACEBOOK
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Lily Naing Kyaw with army spokesman General Zaw Min Tun at the Armed Force Day celebrations on 27 March 2023

Ms Kyaw is said to have been targeted because she was a military informant. She is said to have filmed protesters demonstrating by banging pots and pans in her neighbourhood and handing the footage to the army, leading to their arrests. She had also reported on young people involved with revolutionary forces.

A few months after the February 2021 coup which ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected National Democratic Party (NLD), Ms Kyaw was chosen to speak to CNN and the Southeast Asia Globe during their visit to Myanmar. She told reporters that she had been accused of being a spy and that posters condemning her as a traitor had appeared on lampposts near her home. She also said her home had been vandalised.

“I support the military and accept the coup. But most people in my neighbourhood support the NLD and say they want to kill me,” the singer told reporters. “These people want to destroy the nation.”

Some public figures shunned her because she would tell the pro-military Telegram channel which celebrities were joining anti-coup protests so they could be arrested, according to close sources of the victims.

A famous songwriter, Aung Naing San, who is a pro-democracy supporter, had been embroiled in a long-standing social media row with Ms Kyaw. He was arrested last week after liking the photo of her lying in her car. “Death is sad,” he posted on Facebook on 1 June, “but because there is personal hurt and hatred I clicked satisfied.” The former friends fell out in 2009 and he had criticised Ms Kyaw for supporting the coup.

At least six others have also been arrested after reacting to, commenting on or sharing posts about Ms Kyaw’s shooting on social media. Most were charged with section 505(a), a law which criminalises fake news and incitement against the military.

The killing has spread fear among other pro-government Myanmar celebrities, some of whom have announced they will no longer voice their support for the military because they feel they have no protection, and gunmen could arrive at their door any time. They are warning each other to use social media carefully, and to keep a low profile, according to close sources.

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Paing Takhon is a model and actor with millions of fans

One entertainer caught up in Myanmar’s political minefield is Paing Takhon, a model and actor who was sentenced to three years in 2021 for joining the anti-coup protests. He was released early after agreeing to collaborate with the military, but is now being boycotted after performing for them during the water festival in April.

Social media users posted angry comments under the trailer for his forthcoming film, called Rent Boy. Some accused him of betrayal, others posted “shame on you” and “Paing Takhon is not Myanmar people’s hero any more and he is collaborating with the brutal military junta now”. The actor responded to his 2.8 million followers saying that Myanmar was not progressing because people were fighting each other, but his post was taken down shortly after.

Last April, a rapper named Yone Lay (meaning Little Bunny) was attacked by a man with a knife while he was at a restaurant in Yangon, but he escaped uninjured. On his social media account he said that loving the armed forces was not the same as hating non-military organisations. “I don’t like extremism. I really want everyone to be peaceful and united,” he posted. Like Ms Kyaw, he has been accused of being a military informant.

Meanwhile, there has been a crackdown on celebrities who criticise the government.

Last month rapper Byu Har was arrested for “disrupting the peace” and “spreading propaganda” after he mocked the junta for constant power outages. His father, the famous composer Naing Myanmar, wrote the song Kabar Ma Kyay Buu, meaning “We won’t be satisfied until the end of the world”, which was the anthem of Myanmar’s 1988 pro-democracy movement and is now sung at protests against the 2021 coup.

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