Contributing Author: Mark Vargo, NDAA Vice President & Former Pennington County (SD) State’s Attorney
Daw Angel is dead. She is not someone that you know. But she is someone that you would have been proud to know. She was a young woman trying to bring the Rule of Law to her homeland, Myanmar, which many of you know as Burma.
She was a local prosecutor. She handled cases in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar in Township Court. In normal times, Township Courts handle criminal cases where the penalty is up to seven years in prison and civil cases up to 10 million kyats (about $ 5,000). She was 30.
Daw Angel was a member of the Civil Disobedience Movement. The CDM is composed of those who refused to cooperate with the military junta that calls itself the State Administrative Council (SAC) and which seized power in a coup in February 2021.
Because of military successes, the legitimate, but exiled, National Unity Government (NUG) has created courts and has worked to train prosecutors and judges to fill them in those areas where they can do so. But even where the SAC has little to no control, it remains a threat.
On January 17, 2024, Angel was arrested…if you can call it that. As is often the case with the SAC system, the exact charge is unclear. If the case had lasted for any length of time, it is likely that she would have been charged under Section 50(j) of the junta’s Counter-Terrorism Law, which declares anything that the junta deems to be contrary to the national interest to be illegal and punishable by death.
But the junta did not wait for even its customary, secret, sham court hearing. On January 19, Angel’s body was found near where she was arrested. If the SAC deigns to issue a statement, it will almost certainly be that she was shot while attempting to escape. The fact that she was raped and her body burned will not dissuade the junta from this claim. Neither will the absence of any gunshot wounds.
Daw Angel was not alone. Three others were seized and murdered along with her, their bodies dumped next to hers. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners publishes a running tally of the junta’s atrocities which, as of January 22, 2024, reflects 25,844 arrests, 19,942 still in custody and 4,399 killed. So why should her death resonate so deeply with us as prosecutors?
The answer is simple. She was murdered because her very existence was a threat to the SAC. She was part of an aspirational, new Myanmar, where the Rule of Law will mean that the government is constrained by laws. The junta cannot afford to allow that idea take root, can permit no alternative to their vision that the “rule of law” means that people are ruled by those who make the laws.
It is certainly true that no society in history can claim perfection in the pursuit of justice. But most, at least at times, strive toward that unreachable star. And that is at the bedrock of what we, as prosecutors work toward every day. For Daw Angel to want to join that fight and to do so under an actual…and credible…threat of death, takes a commitment and moral courage that sends chills up my spine.
I do not know the names of most of my co-workers who work to train prosecutors and judges for a new Myanmar. Before you assume that I am callous or forgetful, allow me to explain.
You see, “Daw Angel” was not her name before she joined the CDM. “Daw” is simply a term of respect for a woman in Myanmar. And “Angel” was her “revolutionary” name. These names are given or chosen because of the threat that the SAC poses not just to those brave women and men who stand against them, but to their families, loved ones and friends.
But Daw Angel is dead. She was murdered by the SAC, who already knows her name. And so it is only fitting that she be remembered as herself:
Daw Angel was Daw Khin Hnin Htay.
Her death reminds us that there will be no negotiation with the junta. They have neither the desire nor the capacity to reach any common ground that values anything other than power and greed. They do not speak the language of diplomacy and compromise. They speak the language of atrocity and repression.
I understand that it feels like there is very little that we as Americans can do. But as prosecutors, we are accustomed to being the voice for the voiceless. Elie Wiesel’s words that “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” should be ringing in our ears. So let us not be silent.
And we can also live up to that greatest of American promises, that we, the living, “dedicate ourselves to the great task remaining before us.” We can, every day, in every courtroom, with every victim and every defendant, embody the system of justice for which Daw Khin Hnin Htay laid down her life.
 AAPP cautions: “These are the numbers verified by AAPP. The actual numbers are likely much higher.”