On March 17, Pope Francis launched a strong appeal for peace in Myanmar, saying during his general audience: “I too kneel down on the streets of Myanmar and say: Stop the violence. I too reach out my arms and say: May dialogue prevail!”
The pope was referencing the powerful images of Sister Ann Nu Tawng kneeling and stretching her arms in front of police and soldiers in Myanmar twice, on Feb. 28 and March 8, pleading to them and praying for dialogue and peace.
Who is this sister who got the attention of the world all over from these images? How did she create an impact and inspire Pope Francis in Rome? From where does she come from and where does she live and work? From where does she get the strength for such a brave act? What does she wish in her life?
Sister Ann Rose Lasang Nu Tawng belongs to the Jinghpaw clan of the Kachin ethnic community of Myanmar. She was born on Nov. 7, 1975 in Mai Wi village to devout Catholic parents — Luke Brang Tawng and Rosa Hkawn Jan.
Ann belongs to the parish of Muse from Lashio Diocese in Shan State, upper Myanmar.
Both her parents were government middle school teachers and had eight boys and five girls. Ann was the fifth child and second daughter (Ma Lu). Her parents are now aged in their 70s, and they live at home while worrying about their daughter’s safety and security.
Her father, after retirement, went to Myawng Mya catechetical school in lower Myanmar and was trained to be the catechist in Lashio Diocese and his mother nurtured the family as a house wife.
At an early age Ann felt the call to become a religious sister. It was at this time her parish priest, Father Fidelis Zau Nan encouraged her and showed the path to join the religious congregation of St. Francis Xavier Sisters (SFX) though two of her paternal aunties belonged to the Reparation Sisters.
After grade 7 Ann joined the SFX pre-aspirant program and completed her high school in Pathein. Then she joined the nursing school which was part of the Muslim Ku Thu Pyit Hospital in Yangon from 1999–2001. Then she followed the Aspirant and Novitiate program at Mayan Chawng in Pathein Diocese and pronounced her first vows in 2005.
As a young and enthusiastic sister, she started her missionary activities and completed university distance education study in psychology while serving each year at Ye Nan Tawng and Kabe villages in Pathein Diocese, and Pyapon in Yangon Diocese.
As a qualified nurse, with gained psychological knowledge, she worked from her small clinic at Pathein to meet the emergency needs of those affected by Cyclone Nargis. Her tender caring hands helped heal and comfort many. At the clinic she also looked after senior resident fathers and sisters. Though she was a young nun, she became a mother to many during critical periods of 2008–2010.
After this remarkable service she was posted to St. Francis Xavier Orphanage Centre at Palana in Myitkyina Diocese in 2011 to meet the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) following conflict erupting between Burmese military and the Kachin Independent Army in Kachin State.
Due to this crisis many children became orphans or semi-orphans and many of them were looked after at the orphanage where Sister Ann lived and served. During her time with the orphanage she would visit neighboring IDP families and console them with her comforting words. She would also take on the role of mid-wife for many pregnant women and assisted with deliveries; some of those children she helped come to this world she would later help form their Christian faith through catechism classes in the camp.
From 2017 Sister Ann has been with the Myitkyina-Aungnan SFX community and has served at the diocese-run Mali Gindai Clinic adjoining the city’s cathedral. During this time, she has faced two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and the coup. According to Ann, the pandemic has been bearable but not the coup.
It was during the coup that she protected civilians from security forces and without any fear she knelt before police and soldiers and begged them not to attack civilians. During the March 8 incident, three police knelt before her and promised that they would not kill anyone and requested her leave the area. This was witnessed by her own Myitkyina provincial superior Sister Mary John Paul, SFX and emeritus Myitkyina Bishop Francis Daw Tang.
But did the police keep their promise?
Not long after two men, dead from bullets, and five badly wounded protesters arrived at the clinic where Sister Ann and her team received them and gave them aid.
These deaths were the first to occur during anti-coup protests in Myitkyina.
In the same evening I met Sister Ann at the clinic and saw her immaculate white garment with blood stains. I was moved by what I saw and thanked her for her courageous actions. She was in tears and her hands were trembling, but she was able to whisper: “Thank you father, for your visit. I believe God has used me to protect the brothers and sisters of our Myanmar nation. It is God who gave me strength to face such evil doers. Pray for Myanmar and help us to serve better in this clinic.”
In her own native language, she added: “Yak ai ni hpe dang lu ai daram garum mayu ai” (I want to help as much as the persons in difficulties).
I assured her of my assistance and accompaniment in her service. I saw on her table a certificate of appreciation that she received for International Women’s Day, March 8 that the Myitkyina-based NGO Kachin Development Networking Group awarded her on the same day as the shooting.
From both times that Sister Ann knelt to protect civilians she has become a beacon of peace and reconciliation. These were acts that shows how deeply anchored in Christ she is while mirroring her SFX Religious Congregational motto “Sentire cum Ecclesia” (to think and feel with the Church).
I am really proud of this religious sister, who draws inspiration from St. Francis Xavier, the patron of her congregation and the co-founder of the Society of Jesus, who himself was known for his missionary ministries on the streets of India-Asia. I am happy to witness her life-mission and serve in the same Myitkyina town where she lives, knelt and serves without seeking reward.
During such a crucial time, in a small way, I am happy to accompany and assist her profound and prophetic healing mission of Jesus. Bravo, our dear respected Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng! Awng dang u ga hkungga tsawra ai Ma Ma Ann Rose Nu Tawng e!
Father Girish Santiago, SJ, is the associate director of St. Luke’s College, Edin, Myitkyina, Myanmar.