Anti-coup protesters walk through a market with images of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Kamayut township in Yangon, Myanmar, April 8, 2021. They walked through the markets and streets of Kamayut township with slogans to show their disaffection

Conflict & Justice

‘Our unity is our hope,’ exiled Myanmar envoy says

From hiding, a parliament-in-exile takes shape and seeks to build a new armed resistance force.

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Anti-coup protesters walk through a market with images of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Kamayut township in Yangon, Myanmar, April 8, 2021. They walked through the markets and streets of Kamayut township with slogans to show their disaffection for the military coup.

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Sasa did not plan on becoming a revolutionary. Before the coup on Feb. 1, the elected parliamentarian had every intention of serving in Myanmar’s governing Cabinet. Now, he is in hiding, hoping to rouse an armed resistance force that can fight the military and restore elected rule.

Related: Myanmar’s army is turning guns on medics

Sasa, who goes by one name, is becoming the face of a parliament-in-exile. Following the military coup in Myanmar, the lawmakers who were elected to lead the country are mostly detained and surveilled. But a few have escaped the army’s dragnet and are trying to uphold a legitimate government, ready to take the reins — if the power-grabbing generals stand down or get ousted themselves.

But that is an extraordinarily big “if.” The military will go to vicious extremes to stay in control, even murdering nearly 600 civilians so far, many of whom were demanding the generals to give power back to parliament.

Sasa is the United Nations envoy to this parliament-in-exile (which goes by the acronym CRPH). This will be the legitimate governing body, Sasa says. The military dismisses it as “only an online government” and has charged Sasa with treason.

Related: Inside Myanmar, calls for UN intervention grow louder

Sasa might also inadvertently help rebrand the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who would be the country’s top political leader were she not locked up. Though she is silenced, Sasa is able to speak — because he successfully fled to a safe hideout.

The backgrounds of Sasa and Suu Kyi are quite different. She is political royalty, the country’s most famous person, born to a founding father of the country; Sasa grew up poor, in a mountain village that did not keep proper records. He hails from a small, Indigenous group known as the Mara.

“I don’t know my date of birth,” he said. “My mom and dad didn’t go to school. My mom just told me I was born in the morning when it was raining.”

(Sasa believes he is about 40.)

From those beginnings, Sasa rose to become a medical doctor, traveled the world, and in November, ran for parliament and won. He spoke to The World's Asia correspondent, Patrick Winn, about his extraordinary escape and his plans to create a new “federal army” by uniting Indigenous armed groups in the borderlands.

Patrick Winn: Take us back to the day of the coup, Feb. 1. You were ready to start work that day as an elected member of parliament. What happened next?

Sasa: I was there in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, … and I was to take a senior role in the central government. As we woke up the morning of the 1st of February, our phone was dead, our internet … all dead. All we saw was the military surrounding our buildings.

I was told by the top presidential team to escape as soon as possible. So that I could speak out for the people of Myanmar and elected members of parliament.

I [disguised myself] as a taxi driver. It was tough. The journey was between life and death. It took me three days and three nights to reach a safer location.

Can you say what country you are in right now? Or would you rather not say?

I cannot say about my location or anything like that. I hope that’s understandable. Because of my security.

With your parallel government, you are making really big decisions — like repealing the constitution. To start over and get the army out of politics. But how do your politicians even talk to each other? Or vote on things? Aren’t they locked up or under surveillance? 

Our members of parliament … are in hiding or on the run. But acts of terrorism will not deter our determination. That is to free the people of Myanmar … So, we have developed all means of communication. And I cannot tell all the communication channels we have … But we are meeting every day and discussing everything.

Where is Aung San Suu Kyi exactly? Is she even fully aware of what’s happening in the streets?

We don’t know where they’re keeping her. We don’t know if she’s safe or if she’s OK. They only allowed her lawyer, one time, to meet her on video. So, there’s no way that she would know what’s going on, on the ground. She’s not given any information. Even her lawyer is not able to talk to her independently. These are serious violations of human rights. The same goes for almost 3,000 other detainees.

The army has most of the guns in your country, as you know. That’s a big part of the problem. But Indigenous peoples have their own smaller armies in Myanmar — more than a dozen groups — mostly in the hills. Some are damn good fighters. What would you like them to do right now?

All these ethnic armed organizations, they are there as freedom fighters. We should not forget. They are there because we got cheated out of agreements in 1947 — to become a federal, principles-based country. It’s been 72 years that we’ve been fighting for our rights and freedom, for a federal union. Which the military regime has successfully stopped by killing us.

So, we will be forming a federal army … This federal army will replace and reform the military institution. Which has become a terrorist organization.

You’re hoping that many of the half-million soldiers in the central army will defect and join this new army?

We’ve got a strategy for all those half-million men and women in uniform to join this federal army — not again joined with these killers anymore. We will be having so many men and women coming to this federal army.

These military generals … are commanding them: Go kill your own brothers and sisters. Or be killed. So, we need to create a safe zone for them to come join, where they will be respected and have a future. So many people will join. Right now, the generals are using them like slaves.

Will people choose the light or the dark? Everyone will come to the light. No one likes to live in the dark.

I have to ask, the Rohingya Muslims in your country, no one has had it worse than them. They’ve been killed and pushed out of the country by the army. In your vision of a future Myanmar, are they included?

It will include everyone. No one will be left behind. Our policy is equality and no one left behind. The state will be a secular state … that will protect and respect the rights of all ethnic nationalities. So that there’s no way for anyone to target our brothers and sisters, the Rohingya. We’ll never allow that to happen again.

Dr. Sasa, is Myanmar a failed state?

It’s coming. If the international community fails to stop this killing, of course, this movement will continue no matter what. Because everyone in my country knows they have no future with these military generals. The young generation, they are now leading peaceful protests. Even people who are under 18 know they have no future under these killers. How can we live in a country where armed forces who sign up to protect the people of Myanmar from any attackers … are terrorizing millions of people?

I’ve spoken to a lot of protesters inside Myanmar. They’re pretty tough-minded, I have to say. But a lot of them do feel like they’re losing hope. What gives you hope?

Our unity is our hope. I’ve never seen our people so united like this before. Our peaceful movement is very powerful. It’s unbeatable. 

I understand that there is frustration. What can you say when your mother is killed by gunmen? It’s impossible to express the pain of children dying in their mom or dad’s arms. But again, we are determined to defeat these people once and for all.

Is there any form of armed intervention from the outside world that you would welcome?

We are asking the United Nations Security Council to come together and activate their “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P.

We’re asking them to activate R2P for the people of Myanmar. But again, there have been no results from three meetings the Security Council has had.

If they fail to act, and people continue to die on the streets in my country, I am afraid that a great civil war like we have never seen before is coming soon. Unless the international community comes together, as an international coalition … with powerful sanctions, targeted sanctions, coordinated sanctions, both diplomatically and economically, against this military regime.

There should be a unified and strong message coming from the international community, from our ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] brothers and sisters, the European Union and Washington, London, Tokyo, Delhi, Beijing. All these countries have the power to stop this killing and violence.

If that does not come, I am afraid many bloody days are coming. 

In your best guess, how does this nightmare end?

We are asking the international community to facilitate a reconciliation scenario. If the military generals stop killing our people, and withdraw all the smoking guns across our streets, and release our leader Aung San Suu Kyi … and all detainees, and give back power to elected officials, and come to the negotiation table … then there is a reconciliation process we can talk about. But they try to solve problems by killing people. It’s not going to work. It has to stop.

We are asking our ASEAN brothers and sisters … to facilitate that talk. Bring the generals to the negotiation table and ask them to stop killing children. This is just common sense for us, just a possibility that we can sit down and talk about this.

This interview has been edited for length.

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