Remember six brave heroes of Myanmar’s democracy struggle

Six months on from the military coup, let us pray for true freedom, genuine peace and real justice
August 02, 2021
Remember six brave heroes of Myanmar's democracy struggle

It is perhaps by serendipity that on the eve of the six-month landmark of Myanmar’s coup yesterday, I started reading economist Amartya Sen’s new memoir, “Home in the World”.

He begins by recounting his childhood in Mandalay, his excursions to Maymyo and his reflections on Myanmar’s decades of strife. I could relate to it deeply because Myanmar is a country deeply embedded in my heart, and once again it is causing my heart to break.

Six months ago, on Feb. 1, Myanmar’s decade of fragile, faltering but still hopeful political opening ended and the country was plunged into yet another new chapter of deep darkness. The army’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power in a coup because, in a nutshell, he wanted to be president but was denied the chance at the ballot box — so he used the bullet and the gun barrel instead. Yesterday he named himself prime minister.

In just six months, Min Aung Hlaing and his illegal regime have, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, killed 940 civilians, arrested 6,994 and jailed 5,444 political prisoners. Several hundred thousand people have been internally displaced as the military intensifies its war against ethnic minorities.

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 43 journalists in Myanmar are in jail, while 98 have been arrested since the coup, including Frontier Myanmar managing editor Danny Fenster, a US citizen. And the junta has issued a new decree imposing the death penalty for 23 “crimes” with no possibility of appeal. These so-called crimes include violating the media law and spreading “fake news”.

Having worked on Myanmar for over 20 years, visited the country and its border regions more than 50 times, written three books about Myanmar and been deported from the country twice, this current crisis is uppermost in my thoughts.

Every time I see him, his smile lights up the room and his courage gives me hope

Most of my Myanmar friends are in jail, in hiding or in exile now. I want to tell you about six of them — three in jail, three who continue to speak out — and to ask for your prayers for them.

First, Thin Thin Aung. I have known her for at least 15 years. We used to meet regularly in Delhi when I passed through the Indian capital on my way to visit Chin refugees in Mizoram. We then met often in Yangon after she returned to her home country with her wonderful husband, Soe Myint. Together they had founded Mizzima News in exile and, when Myanmar began to reopen, they were among the first exiled media groups and activists to return. They began the work of rebuilding an independent media and civil society in their country. I contributed often to Mizzima and collaborated with both Thin Thin Aung and Soe Myint.

But Thin Thin Aung, who had been a student leader during Myanmar’s uprising in 1988, was arrested on April 8, charged under Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code, which criminalizes anyone who “causes fear, spreads false news, agitates directly or indirectly criminal offense against a government employee”. She could face up to three years in jail.

Second, Sean Turnell. Again, I have known Sean for over 15 years. He is a good friend and someone I hold in the very highest esteem. He is one of the very few academics focused on Myanmar whose integrity I respect totally, whose judgment I appreciate absolutely and whose values I share utterly.

Sean, a professor of economics at Australia’s Macquarie University, has devoted most of his life to Myanmar and all the past decade to working with Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as one of her advisers. Within days of the coup, he was arrested by the military and has been in jail ever since.

Last week reports emerged of concern about his health in a prison where Covid-19 is rampant. The junta’s state media ran photographs of him having a medical check and his wife issued two appeals via Facebook. Please pray for Sean, for his health and immediate release.

The third is the incredible Buddhist monk Myawaddy Sayadaw, arrested within days of the coup along with other pro-democracy monks. I have known him for the best part of a decade. Every time I see him, his smile lights up the room and his courage gives me hope. He, and other Buddhist monks who have also been working to counter the military’s repression and the ultra-Buddhist nationalist movement’s preaching of hate, are heroes of mine. Now they are in jail and they need our prayers.

These three are in prison along with so many others. Pray for them, pray for Aung San Suu Kyi and for all of Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists, whether politicians or civil society leaders or journalists, lawyers, comedians, actors, artists and everyone who has been imprisoned for speaking out for truth, freedom and justice.

My other three heroes are still able to speak but need your prayers for wisdom, protection and strength as they do so.

The first is Dr. Sasa, my friend of 15 years who is now one of the voices and faces of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. For many years Sasa was a young medical student whom my family and friends supported. Once he graduated and wanted to return to help his people, my family and friends helped him establish his charity, Health and Hope, which has trained thousands of community health workers to work in poor, remote areas of Myanmar.

Last year Sasa was suddenly plunged into the whirlwind of politics, and then — after the coup — catapulted into a key position as one of the very few people who had managed to escape the country and could therefore speak out. He now serves as minister for international cooperation for the National Unity Government (NUG), the legitimate government of Myanmar made up of elected parliamentarians and ethnic leaders.

Pray for him, for even though he is out of the country the junta has charged him with the crime of high treason. He needs strength, wisdom and guidance as he leads the movement’s appeals to the international community for help.

Since the coup, Reverend Samson has been outspoken, issuing several statements and appeals for help

The second is the president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, Reverend Hkalam Samson, whom I have had the privilege of knowing for about a decade.

In 2018, I hosted Reverend Samson and representatives of the Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang ethnic groups on an advocacy visit in London and Brussels, and he was an impressive but humble advocate and leader.

Since the coup, Reverend Samson has been outspoken, issuing several statements and appeals for help. His most recent landed in my inbox last week. With the subject line “Remember”, it was a prayer, and it read as follows:

“My dear almighty Lord God, please hear my humble prayer.

“I believe the power you have entrusted to us human beings is to build a peaceful world where love, generosity, humility and justice thrive. However, when power-hungry people claim governing power by force, they abuse their power by becoming dictators to stay in control for a long time. In world history, because of the inhumane authoritarian leaders, many people were killed in tragic deaths, many societies were destroyed, and many lives were ruined.

“For instance, the very first fighting for power through evil deeds started with Lucifer, the angel. Then throughout human history, many leaders brought destruction upon human society, such as Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jung-il, Saddam Hussein, Marcos of Philippines, Gaddafi of Libya, etc. In addition, there were wars like the crusade war, the First and the Second World War, which power-hungry people ignited. A similar scenario of destruction caused by power-hungry people is still happening in the present. People are dying in the present and will continue dying tragic deaths if the authoritarian system continues in this world. So, oh Lord my God, please help us end this cruel authoritarian leadership for good.

“Especially here in Myanmar, the citizens of Myanmar have been facing tragic deaths for generations and have been forced to live under injustice, persecuted lifestyles and poverty for more than seven decades. Recently, the spread of Covid has added fuel to the fire in Myanmar. As a result, people feel helpless and desperate to fight to live. Moreover, the citizens of Myanmar feel abandoned like orphans because the country has become without good governance. I pray for God’s protection and blessing be upon those in sufferings.

“Hence, my heartfelt prayer is: The almighty God, my Lord, please help us and give us wisdom and strength to end the cruel authoritarian system in Myanmar by blessing the foundation and formation of a fair and justice federal system. Also, Lord, please bless this devastated country with leaders who do not look for self-interest but lead with love so that the citizens will feel secured. In the name of Christ Jesus, may my humble prayer be fulfilled, Amen.”

Let us take up his request and pray for Myanmar.

The combination of coup, crackdown, economic collapse, civil war and Covid-19 has brought the country to its knees

Finally, my third friend and hero among those not in prison is my greatest inspiration, my spiritual mentor, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, who has struck a remarkable balance of courage and wisdom in his outspoken advocacy for his people. Consistently, Cardinal Bo has spoken out against injustice, violence, repression and brutality, called on the military to “drop your guns” and appealed to the world for help, especially as Covid-19 sweeps Myanmar.

It was Cardinal Bo who inspired me to become a Catholic. It was Cardinal Bo who received me into the Catholic Church in Myanmar on Palm Sunday 2013. And it is Cardinal Bo who remains one of my most important inspirations.

As Cardinal Bo continues to give Myanmar a prophetic voice, pray for him – to stay healthy, safe, wise and brave.

Six months on from the devastating coup, Myanmar is on the verge of catastrophe. The combination of coup, crackdown, economic collapse, civil war and Covid-19 has brought the country to its knees.

There are plenty of things the international community should do in response to this crisis. In a nutshell, we need to cut the regime’s lifeline — through targeted sanctions to cut its supply of funds and embargos to cut its flow of arms — and we need to hold the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to account. But we must also provide the people of Myanmar a lifeline in the midst of this humanitarian crisis, and that means aid — delivered via whatever means will get through without being blocked by the junta.

So, as we begin August, let’s not allow the six-month milestone of Myanmar’s coup to go unmarked. But let us also not simply mark it with a shrug of defeat. Instead, let’s mark it with a renewed determination to fight for true freedom, genuine peace, real justice — and with prayer, not despair. Let’s pray for the country and all its peoples — and I request you to especially pray for the six friends mentioned here, three in prison, three able to speak but at some risk, and many others, unnamed, who are in the same situation.

The coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, declared himself prime minister yesterday. He promised elections in 2023. But we know his promise is a lie, and he is much more prime suspect than prime minister. Let us pray that he and his criminal gang do not last another six months, that they are brought to justice and that Myanmar’s true freedoms are established well before 2023.

* Benedict Rogers is CSW’s senior analyst for East Asia and author of three books on Myanmar including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His story of becoming a Catholic in Myanmar is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church”. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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