The nun who became a symbol of resistance
Is moral courage stronger than physical force? A photograph of a nun pleading with police in Myanmar not to use violence against demonstrators reminds us of the power of peaceful protest.
It is an image of extraordinary power: a 45-year-old Catholic nun dressed in a simple white habit kneeling in the dust in front of a group of heavily armed police. Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, who runs a clinic in the city of Myitkyina, was begging them not to shoot protestors behind her. “Just shoot me if you want to,” she said. And in response, two of them knelt down with her.
“I was crying like a mad person,” she said afterwards. “I was like a mother hen protecting the chicks… At that time I was not afraid.”
Nu Tawng was undoubtedly taking her life in her hands. More than 60 people have been killed in demonstrations since Myanmar’s military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on 1 February. The army that murdered civilians during the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims has shown little compunction about treating democracy protestors in the same way.
Tragically, Nu Tawng’s action on Monday did not prevent bloodshed: two men were shot dead by police in the city, one of them in front of her eyes. But its long-term effect remains to be seen. The photograph of her has been widely shared on social media, making her an inspiring symbol of resistance to a savage regime.
It was also a potent reminder of other images of individual courage in the face of overwhelming odds. One was the photograph taken in June 1989 of a lone man blocking the path of tanks in Beijing, after the Chinese government violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Another was the “Flower Power” photo of a young protestor placing a carnation in the barrel of a soldier’s rifle during an anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in October 1967 – despite several other rifles being pointed at his chest.
More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has produced some searing images of women standing up to the police. One shows a Baton Rouge resident, Ieshia Evans, clad in an elegant dress, standing calmly in the middle of the road as she is arrested by two policemen wearing full body armour.
The modern tradition of nonviolent protest owes much to Mahatma Gandhi, who promoted the idea of Satayagraha – a Sanskrit and Hindi word meaning “holding onto truth”. He argued that the best way to resolve an evil situation was to behave in an exemplary manner and bring those who oppose you around to your way of thinking.
Gandhi first developed Satayagraha in response to a law in South Africa, where he lived, which discriminated against Asians. He then advocated it with great success in India, where tactics such as economic boycotts and hunger strikes were used to undermine British rule. It later became a strong influence on the American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King.
In ancient times, the importance of individuals standing up to tyranny was strongly emphasised. Sophocles’s great play, Antigone, focuses on a young woman who risks her life by defying Creon, the ruler of Thebes.
Is moral courage stronger than physical force?
We shall overcome
Some say, no. Nu Tawng was unable to stop innocent protestors from being killed. The man who defied the tanks in Beijing could not stop the Chinese government from suppressing the pro-democracy movement. Alexei Navalny’s protests against corruption in Russia have failed to dislodge President Putin and simply resulted in jail sentences for him and his supporters.
Others point out that movements for change are always stronger if they have a particular figure to inspire them. The success of the independence movement in India can be attributed directly to Gandhi’s vision and courage. In Czechoslovakia, the playwright Václav Havel was thrown into prison by the Communist regime, but his example emboldened others in their successful struggle for democracy.
- Should religious organisations be above politics?
- Many people in Myanmar failed to condemn the army’s treatment of the Rohingyas. Does that make them less deserving of support?
- Take a photograph or paint a picture that sums up the courage shown by people during the pandemic.
- Imagine that you were a participant in one of the protests mentioned here. Write a diary entry describing a moment of confrontation with the authorities.
Some People Say...
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968), American activist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that religious bodies have played an important part in resisting the Myanmar coup. Buddhist monks were among the first to take to the streets in protest – an embarrassment to the coup’s leader Min Aung Hlaing, who claims to be a devout member of their faith. Other Christians beside Nu Tawng have also made their presence felt: the highly influential Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has condemned the coup and called for the release of detainees.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around why people like the police and soldiers in Myanmar are willing to kill their fellow citizens. Tolstoy argued that violence is contrary to human nature and that in a pure society not even a soldier would inflict bodily harm. Such atrocities are only possible, he believed, because states develop ways of distributing responsibility for them so that no individual feels culpable. The policeman who kills a protestor can blame the general who mounted the coup and vice-versa.
- Rohingya Muslims
- Myanmar’s army began a campaign against this religious minority in 2016. The charity Doctors Without Borders estimates that 6,700 people were killed in the first month alone.
- Uneasiness. The word comes from a Latin verb meaning to sting.
- Having great power, influence or effect.
- Tiananmen Square
- A huge open space in the middle of Beijing. Estimates of how many protestors were killed range from several hundred to 1,000.
- The headquarters of the US Defence Department, so-called because it has five sides. The peace protestors attempted unsuccessfully to levitate it in the hope of ending the Vietnam War.
- Baton Rouge
- A city in the southern US state of Louisiana.
- Mahatma Gandhi
- The Indian nationalist leader studied law in England and then moved to South Africa to practise it. He was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic because he promoted interfaith harmony.
- A 5th Century BC Athenian believed to have written 123 plays, seven of which survive.
- A city state in Ancient Greece. Confusingly, it shared its name with a city in Ancient Egypt.