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Exiled Physician Fighting for a Better Myanmar

Myanmar's Minister of the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeenah Moon)
Myanmar's Minister of the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeenah Moon)

A minister of Myanmar’s shadow government says the United Nations has an “obligation” to recognize what the people want ahead of the 76th General Assembly that began Tuesday in New York.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since February’s military coup, during which the military ousted the democratically elected government and followed it with an ongoing violent crackdown on opposing demonstrators.

The annual assembly, which concludes on September 30, will see a nine-member credentials committee discuss who will take the nation’s U.N. seat, with the choice down to either members of the military junta or representative of the former government.

Dr. Sasa, the minister of International Cooperation for Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow government formed in the wake of the coup, which includes ousted legislators and ethnic minority leaders, says the people have spoken.

“The origin of the legitimacy is really with the will of the people of Myanmar. The will of the people of Myanmar has been expressed in the elections, which were free and fair. The U.N.’s duty is to uphold the will of the people of Myanmar. That is the obligation.

“The U.N should look at realistic issues, not just about politics,” Sasa, who uses one name, told VOA from an undisclosed location.

“With or without U.N recognitions, we know what we have to do. That is to end this military junta regime reign of terror,” he added.

In Myanmar’s November elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. But the armed forces made unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud as the coup unfolded earlier this year. A mass uprising, spearheaded by the Civil Disobedience Movement, opposed the coup, and thousands took to the streets in protest.

But thousands have since been killed and detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that monitors Myanmar. The military disputes the figures, saying the number of those killed is lower.

In July, the U.N. had warned that a civil war could break out, but Sasa said the current situation shouldn’t be defined this way.

UN Official Says Myanmar at Risk of Civil War as Despair Rises
UN rights chief says that what began as a coup by the Myanmar military has rapidly morphed into an attack against the civilian population

“People from the outside will see this as a civil war. It’s really not a civil war. It’s a struggle for freedom and democracy, and tyranny, and the destruction of democracy under a military dictatorship.”

'We draw the line'

But only last week the NUG announced a “defensive war” against the Myanmar military, following months of fighting across the country. Political analysts have argued that the announcement was a call to arms.

Myanmar's Shadow Government Announces 'Defensive War'
After the NUG’s acting president, Duwa Lashi La, called for a nationwide uprising, there have reports that the government has increased its military presence in Yangon

Sasa explained the decision.

“We want to stick to law and order, protect the civilians as much as possible, but [at] the end of the day, another side is fighter jets. The people of Myanmar are facing military fighter jets, heavy artillery, heavy weapons. And the question is, how can we disable those weapons?

“We draw the line. Enough is enough. We cannot prolong this reign of terror,” Sasa said.

Myanmar’s political unrest has only multiplied the country’s problems as it struggles with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Because many protest leaders work in the medical sector, several have been targeted by the armed forces. Furthermore, people are refusing to be vaccinated under the military’s stewardship.

Myanmar Faces COVID Vaccination Woes as Health System Under Threat
The country is still fighting a third wave of COVID-19 at a time of increasing political tensions

Originally a medical doctor from a remote village in Chin Yet, Sasa has become a popular new face in politics and was set to take a top job in the government before the coup.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has spent much of its years under military rule and has endured years of ethnic hostilities. Sasa said he faced many difficulties growing up in the country, including the loss of childhood friends and family members.

“The suffering I have seen in my life is something I cannot even begin to describe. It is hard to see such suffering — no hospitals, school, college. To go to hospital or college … takes like seven days walking through the jungle,” he said.

But he managed to get an education, first in India, and then in Armenia, where he went to medical school. He also worked as a schoolteacher, he said, and more recently with humanitarians and health workers in rural villages in Myanmar. But when the opportunity to move into politics came, he found it difficult to resist.

“I was being asked by top leaderships to try politics. It became very difficult to say no. I got the opportunity to bring people together — me, as a minority. I feel I can bring a real value to the country.”

He became a leading member of the Chin State NLD’s election committee for the general elections, which got him noticed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Today, however, with Suu Kyi still detained and facing a slew of charges by the military, and Sasa on the run, things are much different.

“None of us thinks this hell [the coup] would happen. Because COVID-19 is happening, it would lead to chaos and help no one.”

When the coup unfolded, Sasa found himself immediately at risk. He managed to flee unnoticed, disguised as a taxi driver.

“We saw the smoking guns, the government surrounding us, every street everywhere. I start thinking about how to get out from there. The only way was to do like a taxi driver — it takes me three days and nights — I thought I’d be arrested and killed.”

Sasa is still on the run and admits his current situation is still “very tough.” The military charged him with high treason following his political involvement after the coup. He became Myanmar’s representative to the U.N. by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) — a legislative body representing ousted lawmakers.

But he is still hopeful, saying he’s honored to be “bringing people together” with an “inclusive government” fighting for a better Myanmar.

“That feeling of risking life every day, it is uneasy, it is painful. But in the way we are building the future, we are building a better tomorrow for all.

“Hopefully, we’ll see a new Myanmar, a new future, sooner or later,” he said. “All the sacrifices we have made, history will look back and remember something great.”