A Catholic nun in Myanmar is speaking out after photos spread around the world of her kneeling in front of security officers in a desperate bid to shield anti-coup protesters from violence.
Sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) last Tuesday that she was working in a church-run clinic in the northern city of Myitkyina on Feb. 28 when she spotted military personnel chasing, beating, and arresting protesters on the street.
“I thought today is the day I will die. I decided to die,” she told the British news group Sky News.
Nu Tawng, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier congregation in Myitkyina, said she ran outside to confront the police. The 45-year-old told the UCA News that she had prepared herself to “give my life for the Church, for the people and for the nation.”
Photos and video from the scene shared on social media show the Catholic sister standing alone in front of a row of police holding tactical shields, some of whom appear to be armed. She kneels, then rises, both arms raised and tears streaming down her face.
She told UCA News she was begging the officers not to shoot at the unarmed civilians behind her, who were protesting the country’s military takeover earlier this year following an election.
“Just shoot me if you want to,” she recalled saying to the officers.
“I was crying like a mad person. I was like a mother hen protecting the chicks,” she told Sky News. “My intention was to help people escape and be free to protest and to stop the security forces.”
“I asked them not to continue arresting the people. I was begging them. At that time I was not afraid,” she added.
She told Sky News that one of the officers came over to her and tried to calm her down, pledging not to shoot the protesters. But Nu Tawng said she didn’t believe him.
“I feel like they [the military] are not the guardians of the people,” she told Sky News. “They are supposed to protect us but our people have to defend themselves. It’s not safe.”
At least 18 protesters were fatally shot in Myanmar on the day that Nu Tawng made her stand, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office.
The American Catholic magazine Crux has likened Nu Tawng’s actions to Myanmar’s “Tiananmen moment,” referring to the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing, China.
To date, more than 50 protesters have died during the Myanmar military’s crackdown on dissent after its Feb. 1 military coup, which overthrew the elected government of the politician Aung San Suu Kyi, The Associated Press reports.
Thousands have taken to the streets to join daily anti-coup protests in cities across Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The military has imposed a nighttime curfew and, along with lethal force, used tear gas and mass arrests to disperse the crowds. Security forces have also detained journalists and suspended the licenses of media outlets covering the protests.
Nu Tawng’s religious congregation is based in Myanmar’s Kachin state, which has a sizable minority Christian population. Overall, Christians make up about 6% of the majority-Buddhist country, according to the Catholic News Agency.
Nu Tawng told UCA News that she has participated in marches with other Catholic priests, nuns, and lay people to pray for peace and show support for democracy after the military takeover.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Catholic archbishop of Yangon and president of Myanmar’s bishops’ conference, has been making strong, public appeals for peace ― while criticizing the military’s actions. He’s called for the release of detained elected leaders and protestors.
Bo tweeted images of Nu Tawng’s protest on Twitter on Feb. 28 and claimed the sister’s actions allowed 100 people to escape from the police, according to Crux. He wrote in a separate tweet that young protesters are “fighting against the most brutal military dictatorship,” Crux reported. Bo’s Twitter account has been suspended.
“Peace is possible. Peace is the only way. Democracy is the only light to that path,” Bo wrote in a Feb. 3 letter.
Pope Francis, as well as U.S. Catholic bishops, have condemned the military coup. Last week, Francis urged the international community “to ensure that the aspirations of the people of Myanmar are not stifled by violence.”
“May the young people of that beloved land be granted the hope of a future where hatred and injustice make way for encounter and reconciliation,” the pope said.