Protesters take part in a ceremony to pray for those who died during demonstrations against Myanmar's military coup in Yangon on Feb. 28. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Five images from the past three days in Myanmar haunt me.
The face of the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, courageously using his address to the UN to break ranks from the illegal junta and appeal to the world for help.
The words of Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, posted on Facebook and juxtaposed with the picture of his death hours later, and the question he posed: “#How Many Dead Bodies UN Need To Take Action?”
The image of a monk courageously sitting in the street between the police and protesters, telling the police in this Buddhist-majority nation to shoot him first.
The picture of Sister Nu Thawng in Myitkyina, Kachin state, kneeling before the police begging them not to shoot protesters.
And the images of soldiers aiming, firing and killing, pictures of the injured and murdered, and reports of indiscriminate firing not only at demonstrators in the streets but at apartments and medical workers.
The death toll on Feb. 28 was well over 20, with countless numbers wounded, beaten, arrested. The carnage ushers in memories of previous military crackdowns — 1988, 1996 and 2007 especially.
These are extremely dark days for Myanmar — and while new storm clouds have been circling the country in recent years despite hopes raised by political reforms begun a decade ago, few expected the situation to descend so rapidly.
One month ago today, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, illegally seized power, rejecting the expressed will of the people in last November’s election. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, overwhelmingly won a majority of seats and is entitled to form a government. Min Aung Hlaing alleges voter fraud but has produced no evidence of it and instead charges Suu Kyi with the crime of illegally importing walkie-talkies. He is talking nonsense and is driving his country over a cliff in pursuit of his own vain personal ambitions.
There are criticisms to be made of last November’s elections, not least the exclusion, on the pretext of security due to armed conflict, of some areas in Myanmar’s ethnic states and of course the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other displaced ethnic peoples. But the vote on the day was, by all legitimate accounts, free and fair. And it is significant that despite their marginalization, the ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, have come out very strongly against the coup and in solidarity with the anti-coup protesters.
It is also significant that the newly formed Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which isn’t as all-inclusive as I would wish and only represents the NLD, nonetheless has appointed Dr. Sasa, an ethnic Chin and Christian, as its special envoy to the United Nations.
Let me say a few words about this, for Sasa has been one of my closest friends for over 15 years.
Sasa was born in a very remote village in the jungle in Chin state, where almost everyone was illiterate. He does not know his date of birth. He often says that when he first filled out an identity document and was asked his place of birth, he wrote “kitchen”. He knows only that he was born at a time of a full moon and a good harvest.
Sasa’s family and friends quickly discovered he was bright. So, in a village where there was no schooling, they sought some primary education for him. Then they sent him to Yangon for further education. He returned to the village to teach others, but was so horrified by burying many of his neighbors dying of preventable and treatable diseases that he decided he wanted to study medicine. He began an epic journey of further study in India and then Armenia, of all places, funded by his villagers selling pigs and chickens, combined with a few elderly British donors joining in.
I first came to know of Sasa after sitting next to a Greek man on a flight back to London from Bangkok about 16 years ago. His wife, he told me, was funding a young Chin medical student from Burma in Armenia. Having myself traveled to the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, I joined some dots, made some connections and ended up meeting Sasa.
Over the past 15 years Sasa has been part of my family. He has stayed in my home dozens of times and at my parents’ home. He calls my mother “Mum”, and when my first nephew was born he told me: “Isn’t it wonderful, brother, we’re going to be uncles!” He was staying with my parents when my second nephew was born, and he stayed to look after my father while my mother rushed to London to help my sister after the birth. He calls my mother’s cuisine “Second Chance Kitchen” because he knows he’s off duty and can eat as much as he wishes. Sasa has even cut my grass — at his insistence and despite my protestations — while I cooked for him. Sasa knows he has a room in my home every time he comes to London. He’s my brother. His charity, Health and Hope, was first conceived in my family home.
Yet suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Sasa is the CRPH’s nominated special envoy to the United Nations. His picture adorns banners across the nation. Protesters throughout Myanmar are saying that he is their only representative. He has been catapulted into national prominence.
That is both exciting and dangerous. In politics anywhere, and especially in Myanmar, political leaders are lauded or threatened. At least two friends of mine have been assassinated. If expectations are raised too high and then, understandably, not met, disappointment follows. I don’t want that to happen to my friend. He undoubtedly has the capacity to inspire, unite and lead. He has the personality to capture the hearts of the world. But he will need the support of all of us, the people of Myanmar and the free world, to deliver and to manage expectations.
And so what can we do for Myanmar at this time? Let’s look regional, then global, and then to the Church.
Regionally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must act now in response to the carnage. It must suspend Myanmar as a member and make it clear that its membership can only be restored once a legitimate, elected, civilian-led representative government is restored. ASEAN can and should engage and negotiate with the junta to exert pressure but should also afford Dr. Sasa and his team a hearing.
Globally, the United Nations must act now. And as the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, rightly said, that must mean more than words. We need a global arms embargo. We need targeted sanctions against the military’s enterprises. And we need the UN to accept the legitimate representatives of the people of Myanmar — embodied in the form of Sasa as their envoy, in close collaboration with the very courageous Kyaw Moe Tun, working together. Kyaw Moe Tun and Sasa must talk, collaborate and agree their respective roles, and that is a matter for them, but the UN itself should engage with them both, afford them protection and recognition, and reject whomever the junta send in Kyaw Moe Tun’s place.
The UN should also immediately send a high-level delegation, led by secretary-general Antonio Guterres, to Myanmar to exert diplomatic pressure to stop the bloodshed.
And for the Church? When you see nuns on the street pleading with police, and Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon issuing very courageous statements, I think it is time for Pope Francis and the Vatican to find a voice once again.
That voice should not be equivocal. It should be clear. It might offer mediation, but it should never suggest appeasement. So far, while the voice of the Church in Myanmar has been inspiring, the voice of the Church worldwide in their support has yet to be heard.
As someone born into the Church in Myanmar on Palm Sunday eight years ago, I will always fight for Myanmar — and I’d like to see the Church I joined there speak out too. It’s carpe diem time.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, writer and senior analyst for the international human rights organization CSW. He is the author of four books on Myanmar, including ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.