The courage of a Catholic nun in Myanmar caught the attention of people around the world this week when a photo of her kneeling before armed policemen became viral on social media.
“Please don’t shoot, please don’t. They are innocent civilians,” cried Sister Rose Lasang Nu Tawng of the Diocese of Myitkyina when policemen and soldiers aimed guns at protesters on Feb. 28.
It was an unusually busy Sunday morning for Sister Rose, who runs a clinic with other nuns of the Congregation of St. Francis Xavier in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in northern Myanmar.
The clinic is usually closed on Sundays, but all other hospitals were closed since the military took over the government of Myanmar in a coup on Feb. 1.
With the growing number of poor patients needing medical attention, Sister Rose invited Catholic health workers and friends to help in the church-run clinic.
“I saw people, mainly protesters, in the street in front of our clinic,” Sister Rose recalled what happened that Sunday morning.
Then she saw police and military vehicles bearing water cannons approaching a group young Catholics who were gathered outside the clinic.
A loud explosion erupted even before the nuns could react to the approaching vehicles.
“We were all shocked and we ran away,” Sister Rose recalled.
“We tried to help keep the people from the police,” she said, adding that the clinic opened its doors to the protesters.
Pandemonium ensued, armed men went after the people, some protesters were beaten and arrested, hundreds fled into the clinic compound.
“I was crying out loudly, and I tried to get back the people who were taken by the police. I tried to intervene, and the police beat me,” she said.
“Probably, I looked like a fool that time,” Sister Rose said smiling as she recalled how she stood outside the door of the clinic with her arms stretched to prevent the policemen from going after the people.
Still some people were not able to escape. Some fell on the ground and hurt themselves.
Sister Rose said that she, too, wanted to run away, “but I felt pity for the people, so I decided to stay, and to die if it is necessary.”
Outside, as the police began to march forward, the nun ran in toward them, folded her hands as if in prayer, and knelt on the pavement.
“The people have already suffered much. Just shoot me to death,” she told the policemen who stopped at the sight of the nun kneeling in the middle of the street.
After some moments, Sister Rose opened her eyes and saw that she was alone. The people had already fled and the policemen retreated.
“As I was about to go inside, the policemen came back and again I faced them and tried to chase them out,” said the nun.
Then there was a burst of gunfire.
“These people are innocent and they just want to protest in a peaceful way,” Sister Rose shouted at the police and soldiers.
“Do not treat them harshly. All of us are citizens and are brothers and sisters. If it is necessary, just kill me and let the people be free,” the nun bravely addressed the armed men.
The police warned her not to come nearer. But the nun refused.
“As long as you continue to do cruel things, I will not move away. Instead, I will suffer death,” she said.
The police finally left.
Sister Rose withdrew to the clinic to help dressed the wound of those who were hurt. The young people and the Catholic doctors were still there.
One young man was seriously wounded while another was unconscious. The other sisters brought more wounded people to the clinic during the day.
As her photo kneeling on the road in front of armed men went viral, the nun admitted that she herself was surprised by what she did.
“I thanked God for the strength to face the policemen,” she later said.
Several groups and individuals lauded Sister Rose’s action.
“The action of the nun and the response of the police who, upon seeing the nun’s plea, stopped, surprised many of us,” said Joseph Kung Za Hmung, editor of Gloria News Journal, a Catholic online publication in Myanmar.
He described the nun as a “role model for church leaders.” He said “bishops and priests are called to step out of their comfort zones and follow her courage as an example,” added Hmung.
On March 3, Myanmar security forces shot and killed a further nine people during protests, a day after a regional diplomatic push to end the month-long crisis made little headway.
The violence came a day after foreign ministers from Southeast Asian neighbours urged restraint but failed to unite behind a call for the military to release ousted government leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Close to 50 people have been killed since the coup on Feb. 1, which ended Myanmar’s tentative steps towards democratic rule, triggering nationwide protests and international dismay.
The security forces also detained more than 300 protesters as they broke up protests in Yangon.