The Story of Ko Jimmy A love story that starts in a ruthless military dictatorship, and lands itself in a darkened prison.

The Story of Ko Jimmy

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, "A Love Supreme." Now every great love story features two people fighting against the odds to bring their joy to fruition. Sometimes, though, the battle can't be won.

A few weeks ago, we sent SNAP producers, Anna Sussman and Pat Mesiti Miller clear across the globe to Burma, where they happened upon a love story of epic proportions.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: This is the city of Yangon in Burma. And I'm walking up a narrow cement staircase to the apartment of a man in Jimmy. He offers me seat and a cup of tea.

KO JIMMY: You want to sit together, yes?

SUSSMAN: And he says, guess my age.

JIMMY: What do you think about my age?

SUSSMAN: Around 40?

JIMMY: Forty-four years.

SUSSMAN: He's 44.

JIMMY: Half of my life in prisons.

SUSSMAN: He said half of his life he's been in prison as a political prisoner. He invited me here because he said, telling his story has been dangerous, but he wants to talk now.

His story began when he was a student in university. It was 1988, the year the democracy uprising began in Burma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPORTER: This evening, the situation in Yangon remains extremely volatile. Major demonstrations...

SUSSMAN: Students came together to protest the country's military dictatorship. Jimmy was a student leader. The rallies were dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPORTER: An Armed Forces commander had declared that the army would take stern measures against protesters...

SUSSMAN: Protesters risked imprisonment and torture. At some rallies, the military just opened fire on the students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: As many as 3,000 people may have been killed during last week's demonstrations in Burma.

SUSSMAN: But Jimmy was an activist.

JIMMY: So we just want democracy. We just want truth.

SUSSMAN: He would give speeches for thousands at mass rallies. At one point, he said he remembered looking into the crowd and seeing a high school student.

JIMMY: White uniforms...

SUSSMAN: Still dressed in her green and white school uniform. And he remembered that girl in her uniform. She kind of stayed in his head. Even after he was arrested for his role in the protests and sentenced to 20 years with hard labor.

The cells around him in the prison began to fill with other political prisoners as the democracy movement went on. After seven years inside, Jimmy heard about another new inmate, a young woman who was accused of organizing student protests. Her name was Neil Artane (ph) and she was the very same girl that Jimmy had seen from stage - the one wearing the green and white school uniform. And now he was concerned because she was young and alone and he wanted to get her a message.

So you would tell the guard to give her message?

JIMMY: A few words, a few words. I could ask, is you fine? Is you well?

SUSSMAN: But Neil Artane was not well, she had rheumatic heart disease. In the middle of the night Jimmy could hear the female prisoners shouting for help.

JIMMY: At midnight, someone shouted that - guards, guards, somebody is ill. She is sick. I can hear the words - sickness - daily, daily, daily. So I couldn't suffer the sounds.

SUSSMAN: So Jimmy asked what the problem was.

JIMMY: Why, why, why, why she's the sickness? We have to ask the authorities. You're torturing my sister? What you doing to my sisters?

SUSSMAN: He called her his sister because they were brothers and sisters in this fight against the military dictatorship. Jimmy found out that Neil Artane was kept isolated from the other inmates.

JIMMY: She was very lonely, very lonely. Dark nights and silence in the night, you can hear the song of crickets, so nothing. No one, no one - just only her. I thought that that is why she was ill.

SUSSMAN: Jimmy convinced the guards to let him meet her, to help her feel better. This in a damp, dark prison cell is how their romance blossomed. He didn't bring her candy or flowers, but he would bring her food and medicine and they would talk about political strategies and great writers on democracy - things they both loved.

JIMMY: Let us say that when we saw each other for many times, we discussed many things and we were more friendly than ever - more friendly than ever.

SUSSMAN: Neil Artane got better with his company. Weeks became months and months became years and they kept visiting and talking and eventually, Jimmy proposed.

JIMMY: Two years after we met, I proposed her. We fall in love.

SUSSMAN: But they couldn't get married in prison, all they could do was plan about the day they might be free. And then one morning the guards came to Jimmy's cell with news.

JIMMY: The prison authorities called us out of the cells. We were surprised, we were surprised. They told me that we were released.

SUSSMAN: Neil Artane and Jimmy were freed on the same day. She had been in prison for nine years and he for 16. They got married very quickly - within a year, because they knew they weren't actually free. They were democracy activists, so they were always at risk. They lived in this world where arrest and imprisonment were always lurking, always there. Like in every marriage, they promised to be together forever, but Neil Artane and Jimmy prepared to be apart.

JIMMY: I mean that we would never be apart even though we're apart. We always cross each other even though we're part.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPORTER: We begin tonight with a top story - the death of freedom in a faraway land. Bloody sandals on the streets where peaceful demonstrators...

SUSSMAN: When thousands of monks took to the streets in what would come to be known as the Saffron Revolution, Jimmy and Neil Artane were expecting a baby.

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SPEAKER: Throughout Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of people...

SUSSMAN: If they joined the protests, they risked losing each other and their baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPEAKER: Such gatherings hadn't been seen...

SUSSMAN: But what they wanted for their baby more than anything else was for her to grow up in a free country. So they put their hands over Neil Artane's stomach and asked for understanding.

JIMMY: When she was pregnant, so I hold my wife's stomach and I requested my baby in her womb so...

SUSSMAN: And what did you request?

JIMMY: Understand your parents because we may be in prison for the next times.

SUSSMAN: When their baby, named sunshine, was four months old, Jimmy was arrested again. Neil Artane took the baby and fled into hiding.

JIMMY: She live in the darkness with baby.

SUSSMAN: She hid in darkened apartment across the city. When the police came knocking, she would hush the baby and the baby stayed quiet, tightly Jimmy says - meaning still.

JIMMY: We thought that she knew - she knew everything. She stayed silent tightly - stayed tightly.

SUSSMAN: Neil Artane was on the run for a year and then she too was arrested and sentenced to 65 years in prison. This time, she and Jimmy were sent to prisons eight hours away from each other. Jimmy in a river valley, and Neil Artane high on a mountainside. And Sunshine stayed with her grandparents.

JIMMY: We couldn't write the letters to each other - too far.

SUSSMAN: Far away.

JIMMY: Yeah, but we got to get the smell off our body from the letters.

SUSSMAN: Jimmy remembers having to get the scent of each other's bodies from the letters. Three years into their 65 year sentence...

JIMMY: On January 2012 - the same day. The same day.

SUSSMAN: They were both freed on the same day. And this time, it seemed different, like their 20 years of sacrifice was beginning to pay off because the government was actually implementing democratic reforms. Hundreds of political prisoners were freed on that day. Newspapers were allowed to report freely.

When Jimmy and Neil Artane reunited, they celebrated for a moment and then they went back to work. They traveled from village to village giving workshops about the country's new transition to democracy. And in the first village they went to, they were hugged by complete strangers who were crying.

JIMMY: Everybody know about our story. When they met us, they had to cry. We were wishing for your release for your daughter - 'til now.

SUSSMAN: Even now you're getting...

JIMMY: Yes sure.

SUSSMAN: People you don't know?

JIMMY: Strangers, strangers.

SUSSMAN: Their story had become a legend.

JIMMY: It like that - the story was so very famous among our people - very romantic story.

SUSSMAN: Now Neil Artane and Jimmy sit close together on a couch in their apartment in Yangon, the same city where they once had. They finish each other's sentences and laugh a lot. A year ago, this interview would have been illegal, but today they say they can speak openly, even in public. Neil Artane doesn't speak English, but she listens and nods in understanding as Jimmy talks to me. And this is what she says about her daughter.

(Foreign language spoken.)

SUSSMAN: Every parent worries about their children. Her parents worried for her when she was imprisoned, and when she left baby Sunshine, she was worried. But they want their children to know what they call real freedom. It's still unclear if that freedom is here yet.

Do you think you'll go back to prison again?

JIMMY: For now?

SUSSMAN: Yeah, what do you think about the future? Do you think...

JIMMY: We call prison is our second home. Everybody can be faced with tortures, handcuffs and arrests for our conscience. Everybody say about freedom - I have to share the teaching of Ariboda (ph). True freedom, it's nirvana, nirvana.

SUSSMAN: He's saying nirvana. It might not come in this lifetime, but maybe in a future life.

JIMMY: Life, another life, life, another life, life, another life. For many years finally you will get true freedom. Never stop, never stop, never stop.

WASHINGTON: That piece was produced by Ana Sussman and Pat Mesiti Miller as part of the Global Story Project with support from the Open Society Foundations. In cooperation with PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, we very much appreciate their support. You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT "A Love Supreme." We'll be right back after this little tiny break, stay tuned.

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