Since February 1st a South East Asian country that rarely makes the news here in Ireland has been gradually and tragically turning into a bloodbath. For Myanmar (or Burma) this is in some ways a new eruption of a wound that has afflicted the country for decades, you could say generations. In other ways, it is something entirely new and unexpected.
For a decade until the recent military coup there were credible grounds to hope that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party had established a foothold that would in time lead to actual democracy. Now it is difficult to see what will happen next.
There have been two constants. The first is the continuously mounting death toll. The second is the question from Myanmar citizens, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes expectant: how many more deaths will it take for the international community to act? As I write this, reportedly around 200, or more, innocent civilians, and counting, have been shot dead and around two thousand have been wrongfully arrested. Martial law has been imposed on certain areas with all the attendant risks this poses. This is all at the behest of a military junta that illegally seized power on 1st February and has recently expressed its indifference to the prospect of being isolated internationally.
We are all guilty of claiming powerlessness in the face of violations of fundamental human rights in faraway countries. Sometimes it takes a face, a name, a biography to personalise the horror of the statistics, to transform a news story competing for attention here in Ireland with Brexit and Covid into a call to action. Such a name is Ma Kyal Sin. Let me get back to her in just a moment.
I am privileged to know many Myanmar people as my close friends. At this time it seems more of an affliction to be aware of their suffering without the capacity to act on their behalf. I feel powerless. But am I? Ireland campaigned successfully for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Simon Coveney, our Minister for Foreign Affairs has been almost completely silent in public utterances on the situation in Myanmar.
No one is so naïve as to think that Ireland can singlehandedly influence China which has the power of veto on the Council. But it can try. It can be seen to speak out. It can use the moral influence that Ireland used to have to try to, for instance, push for recognition of the CRPH, a group of legislators, now in hiding, who have refused to accept last month’s coup. Ireland could push for use of a non-military intervention, possibly in the form of the UN’s R2P (“Responsibility to Protect”) doctrine, against the Myanmar military such as a global arms embargo, targeted sanctions, and rights monitoring missions.
Now let me return to Ma Kyal Sin. She is a symbolic face of the scores of innocent victims of the junta. She happens to be much more than this in her selfless courage and her thirst for peace and freedom for her fellow citizens.
Ma Kyal Sin, aged just 19, nicknamed Angel, loved taekwondo, spicy food and red lipstick. Her friends say she was an ardent supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains in detention. On her Facebook page, she could be seen posting videos of dance moves, selfies of her outfits, and displaying her close relationship with her father.
In an affectionate moment last month, he tied a red ribbon symbolising bravery around her wrist, according to photos she posted. “I don’t want to post too much about this – just thank you, daddy,” Kyal Sin wrote, along with the hashtag “Justice for Myanmar”.
In late 2020, father and daughter took photos of their purple ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at Myanmar’s second democratic election. “For the first time in my life, I have undertaken my responsibility as a citizen … one vote from the heart,” Kyal Sin wrote on Facebook, posting an image of her kissing her inked finger.
Her father hugged her goodbye when on March 3rd she went out on the streets of Mandalay, in central Myanmar, to join the crowds peacefully protesting against the military coup.
The black T-shirt that she wore to the protest that day innocently proclaimed: “Everything will be OK.” Footage shows Kyal Sin’s last moments during a demonstration that turned violent, crawling along the road and running for cover amid the sounds of gunfire and a plume of tear gas. Kyal Sin had been shot in the head by the security forces. A companion recalled a brave young woman who kicked open a water pipe so protesters could wash tear gas from their eyes. “She cared for and protected others as a comrade.”
Angel had listed her blood type on her Facebook page and her phone number. She said her organs were available for donation if anything were to happen to her. Her friend shared a copy of her last message to him on social media: “This might be the last time I say this. Love you so much. Don’t forget”.
Her t-shirt slogan, “Everything will be ok” has become emblematic of the idealism particularly of Myanmar youth who are not prepared to accept a return to military repression. Angel, Ma Kyal Sin, is a name and a face that will never be forgotten by her compatriots. For Irish eyes she should be the image that spurs us on to go beyond the grim death statistics of a faraway military coup. Irish missionaries, among others, brought Angel’s message to Myanmar over several generations: “Everything will be okay.” Now is no time to forget that.
Artwork by Tams Lu on Twitter