(New York, NY) — In response to news of the death of poet Khet Thi while in military custody, PEN America condemned the killing and called on the ruling junta in Myanmar to cease targeting those speaking out against the February 1 military coup.

Myanmar poet Khet Thi (also known as Ko Zaw Tun) died after being detained by military forces on the night of May 8 in Sagaing region’s Shwebo township, where he had been held overnight for interrogation purposes. According to reports, he died in transit to Monywa hospital; his body bore marks of torture, including severe bruising. Khet Thi’s wife said that both of them had been taken in for interrogation by armed soldiers and police on Saturday night, and taken to separate locations. After being released, she received a call the next afternoon to go to Monywa hospital. Upon arrival she was led to the hospital’s morgue and discovered her husband’s body, his internal organs removed. A poet who made a living by selling cakes, Khet Thi had played a key role in the anti-coup civil disobedience movement in recent months. He is the third poet to have died as a result of the protests following the February 2021 coup. 

“The gruesome murder of Khet Thi is an alarming indication that the military junta is escalating its repressive tactics against the civilian population of Myanmar, including writers and influential cultural figures,” said Karin Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “The creative community has played an inspirational role in the ongoing protests and as a result is being increasingly targeted by the military junta’s brutality. Khet Thi’s death is a devastating example of the way in which individuals engaging in civil disobedience are being singled out for wholly disproportionate and unlawful punishment. No one should be killed for merely expressing themselves peacefully. Instead of seeking compromise with the elected government, as was agreed to at the recent ASEAN summit, military authorities have instead intensified their crackdown on dissent. We call on the junta to respect the Myanmar people’s right to free expression and association, and to negotiate a peaceful solution to the political impasse.” 

Since the coup on February 1, the military junta has cracked down on artists, writers, journalists, and other protestors via increasingly draconian digital, legal, and violent measures. Alongside several high-level political leaders—including state counselor and NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and deposed president U Win Myint—writers and creative artists such as Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Daw Than Myint Aung, Maung Thar Cho, and Htin Lin Oo were arrested without legitimate charges and remain in detention. Even before the coup, Myanmar ranked among the world’s worst jailers of writers and public intellectuals; in the recently released Freedom to Write Index, PEN America found that Myanmar was one of the top ten jailers of writers and intellectuals in the world in 2020, with eight documented cases, an alarming backdrop to the dramatic escalation of human rights abuses triggered by the coup earlier this year. 

PEN America also leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC recently released A Safety Guide for Artists, which offers practical tools to help artists understand, navigate, and overcome risk. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.