By Robin Gomes
The Catholic nun of Myanmar whose powerful gesture of pleading with security forces to avoid a bloodbath drew intense media attention worldwide, is grateful to Pope Francis for his closeness to the people. Since the Feb. 1 military coup, the entire nation has been in turmoil with protests and a civil disobedience strike, demanding the release of their elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy. The military has however taken a hard line, with security forces cracking down ruthlessly on peaceful protesters, with numerous deaths.
Grateful the Pope remembers us
"We are deeply grateful to the Pope because he remembers us. He knows Myanmar, he was among us in 2017,” Sister Ann Nu Tawng told the Vatican’s Fides news agency. On Feb. 28, the 45-year-old Xaverian nun noted that a contingent of heavily armed police had gathered near her order’s clinic in Myitkyina, the capital of the northern state of Kachin. She told BBC News they were firing to break up the protest. In panic, many young protesters sought refuge in the clinic.
Noting the police were preparing for another assault, Sister Tawng decided to face the forces. She slowly approached the security forces, went down on her knees and bending over with folded hands earnestly pleaded with them not to fire or harm the unarmed people. Seeing her, she said, some of the police also knelt down.
“Just shoot me”
She told them she could not bear to see the people suffer anymore. They told her they respected her but they had to follow orders. They told her to leave immediately, warning she was in grave danger, but she stood her ground saying, “Just shoot me if you want to. The protesters have no weapons and they are just showing their desire peacefully,” Sister Nu Tawng told the security men. Videos of her courage and compassion has since gone viral worldwide drawing immense applause.
Pope: “I too kneel”
Pope Francis was among those deeply touched by her courage and testimony. Speaking at the end of his weekly general audience in the Vatican on Wednesday, he launched yet another appeal, emulating the nun’s feelings. “Once again, and with great sorrow, I feel it is urgent to mention the dramatic situation in Myanmar, where so many people, especially the young, are losing their lives to offer hope to their country,” the Pope said on March 17. “I too kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say: stop the violence! I too reach out my arms and say: may dialogue prevail!” the Pope said in his 4th appeal since the coup.
Actions of every Christian
“We are comforted and encouraged by the fact that the Pope supports us to end all violence through dialogue,” Sister Tawng told Fides. “I am surprised that, as has been reported to me, his words may have been inspired by my gesture of kneeling down and raising my hands to the sky. I did it with my heart. These are the actions of every Christian who has humanity at heart," she said.
"We suffer alongside our people,” the nun continued, adding, “The violence does not stop and the injured are increasing day by day. Private clinics here in Kachin State are closed for fear of the military.” The small clinic run by the Xaverian nuns in Myitkhina is among the few health centres open, where they are able to treat those with light injuries but serious cases are in great difficulty with some of them dying, the nun said.
A sign of hope
“However, in the midst of these tribulations, today we had a great sign of hope,” she noted. “Alongside the words of the Pope,” she said, “two pregnant women, slightly injured and hospitalized in our clinic, gave birth to their babies, a little boy and a little girl.” “Every life is precious,” Sister Tawn stressed, adding, “We will not abandon our mission which is to heal the wounded, to console the afflicted and defend all human life.” “The Pope is by our side, he is close to our suffering people," she said.
Later, recounting how things unfolded on Feb. 28, Sister Tawng told BBC that she told the police that if they really needed to kill, they could kill her; she was ready to give her life. The police left but later the nun heard sounds of firing and people running in panic. She saw smoke coming out from near the church. They were surrounded by the police on all sides. Sr. Tawng broke down in tears saying she saw a skull blown up in a pool of blood. They brought the body to the church but the sisters and priests could do little with their eyes burning with tear gas.
The total number of protesters killed by the security forces so far has risen to at least 233, according to the latest report and a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group.
Gestures of peace, such as that of Sister Tawng, are not alien to Pope Francis. In a dramatic gesture in the Vatican on April 11, 2019, the Holy Father, stunned South Sudan’s previously warring leaders when, despite painful sciatica, he knelt down to kiss their feet, pleading with them not to return to a civil war.