Myanmar Voices “Whoever Holds the Banner Will Be Shot”
That day, my sister was not scared. She protested because what is happening in Myanmar is not right.
By Cin Mual Pa
As told to Jessica Goudeau
This is Myanmar Voices, a new column by Jessica Goudeau, which tells first-person stories of people in Myanmar and their loved ones. The as-told-to format gives them control over their narratives and allows us to change their names and identifying details to protect them from the repercussions of speaking out. Myanmar is the site of the longest-running civil war in the world , and the country was plunged into fighting again this year when the ruling junta, the Tatmadaw, took over the country in a coup on February 2, 2021. To learn more about the background of the current crisis, read the BBC’s helpful explainer .
Jessica’s note: “Cin Mual Pa” is the pseudonym of a close friend of mine; we’ve known each other for over a decade, when his family first came to the United States as former refugees. I ran into him at a fundraiser that the local Myanmar community organized to support the National Unity Government of Myanmar; when I asked him how he was doing, he teared up and told me about his sister, Akhu. Later, when I interviewed him for the story, Cin Mual Pa called Akhu’s family in Myanmar to confirm they were okay with him sharing about her. Not only were they glad for her story to be more widely known, but they insisted we use her real name, a request they made in writing. We’ve chosen to keep only her first name so that we can honor their request but still protect the identities of Cin Mual Pa’s other relatives. The day that this story took place, my friends from Myanmar flooded Facebook with photos and drawings about Akhu—she was an inspiration to thousands.
The day my sister Akhu died, she’d known that it might happen. She led the way at one of the many demonstrations on March 28, 2021, in Kalemyo, a town in northwestern Myanmar. She and others were protesting an attack by the army, the Tatmadaw, that had taken place earlier that morning. As an organizer for a women’s rights group, Akhu and her team would go from village to village and town to town teaching women that they deserve to have rights. Women in Myanmar don’t have as many rights as they do in other countries around the world; Akhu wanted them to know that they deserve to have rights, that they are equal to men, that they can get education, and that they can change the world. She opened a lot of women’s eyes in Myanmar. That day, my sister was not scared. She protested because what is happening in Myanmar is not right. She knew when she walked to the front it was especially dangerous: Whoever holds the banner will be shot.
The sniper targeted her, right through the heart.
My sister opened my eyes. Despite the fact that we grew up in similar ways in Myanmar, and that we were both refugees in New Delhi, India, Akhu’s eyes were bigger than mine. She took a lot of classes. Education helped her see things. For a long time, my eyes were too small to see the whole world the way that she did.
I left Myanmar in 2004, when several people fled the violence in Kachin State. I lost track of my sister for a long time. I met my wife, and we started a family. We lived in a camp in New Delhi. The conditions there were horrible. Being a refugee is not a choice; we didn’t wake up and say, “I want to be a refugee.” There is nothing easy about it. In the camp, there was only one toilet for twenty families. There was only water during the mornings and in the evening; we lived in a space of ten square feet. It was not a life.
I tried to make things better for my family by starting a business. I made all kinds of food that I used to sell to people. I went from house to house; eventually, I made enough money that we could rent a small space outside of the camp.
One day, I was at the office of a human rights organization where I often sold food, and I saw her. I said, “You are my sister!” And she said, “Yes, it’s me!”
I gave her my address that day. I didn’t invite her to live with us because we had less than she did; she was staying in a good office. But then, a few years later, she came to us by herself. She brought her clothes and her bags. She lived with us for almost three years.
Akhu was young at the time, in her twenties. She met her husband at the camp in New Delhi. And she took as many classes as she could there. She loved to learn about what was happening around the world. She was very good at public speaking; she spoke four languages fluently, and wherever she went, people loved her.
She was a gifted talker. When she was little, that fact got her in trouble. Our parents taught us that if we were quiet, it meant we were good kids, that we were polite. But she would talk to anyone.
But what got her in trouble as a child made her very good at her work later, helping women learn they deserved to have rights. When she talked to people, she could convince them of things. She was very patient. She would smile and she never got mad, even about things she cared about passionately. She just made reasonable arguments and listened calmly.
When she lived with my family in India, I argued with her all the time. We grew up in a tradition that taught us that women should have fewer rights than men; it was the mindset I’d had for more than twenty years by then. I knew that it might be wrong; she was patient with me, but it still felt impossible to change my mind. Sometimes I would end our arguments, because I’m older, and just say, “Shut up!”
I was very frustrated with what she was doing. But when I came to America, I began to see things differently.
My sister opened my eyes. Akhu’s eyes were bigger than mine.
Our lives took two different directions: My family had the opportunity to resettle in the United States, and we came here in 2009. Not long after that, Akhu and her husband went back to Myanmar.
After 2010, during the half-democracy when the Tatmadaw began acting as if they were allowing more freedom in Myanmar, many people returned, including many refugees. Akhu was one of them, planning to teach women about what she had learned.
Before 2010, there were only two broadcasting stations, both controlled by the army; there were a lot more after 2010. As Myanmar opened up to the outside world, people got Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. They had access to more technology, more media, and better education. Like Akhu, their eyes got bigger as they learned what they had been missing and what freedom felt like.
Coming to America changed me; I see things better now. I saw people who’d been taught their whole lives that women should have rights, who learned in school that women are equal to men. In Myanmar and in the refugee camp, we had no one to ask us about our future, especially our education. When I came to America, I got a job at a church. They paid for me to take ESL classes as part of my job; they paid me an extra ten hours a week just to get an education. I got my GED and my degree at a community college. My wife got a good job too. I saw that it was good for women to have rights, to be able to work, to be happy.
I feel very blessed to be in America, but I am sad too. I want my friends and family in Myanmar to be safe. For a while it felt like they might be, during the years of the half-democracy. We knew that it was not a real democracy. The army had their own political party, filled with people who used to be top-ranking military generals. They took off their army uniforms and said they were regular people, but they still had power. And when they lost the November 2020 election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s party into power, they said, “This is fraud.” After months, they could not find any proof of fraud, so in a coup on February 2, they took over the country.
The army has always divided the people; they made us angry with each other, and it worked for a long time. After the coup, they used the same strategies. They tried to close down the broadcasting stations, they arrested journalists, they cut off the internet, they shot at protestors. But none of the things they used to do are working.
This time, we are united. The civil disobedience is led not only by students but also by nurses and doctors and teachers and all kinds of people. It is everyone. I think this time it is different, and that is good.
But we are so sad that our country cannot have freedom like other countries. I am sad that people I love cannot be safe like my family is safe.
Now in Myanmar, there is no “safe.” Nowhere is safe; no one is safe. Any conversation can be misunderstood; you might think you are talking to a neighbor, but you’re really talking to an underground member of the Kachin army or the Chin army, and then the Tatmadaw soldiers will accuse you of giving them information. They might arrest you.
Akhu could have been safe. She had the chance to go to the US or Canada or Australia. Instead, she went right back into Myanmar to educate women in our home state. I will always remember her as a little girl, about nine or ten—how she could make friends with anyone, how she had a smile that made everyone love her all of her life.
On March 28, the sniper shot her as she held the banner at a protest advocating for freedom in Myanmar. I never thought her life would end in this kind of sadness. She was only thirty-six.
I wish I could tell her that she changed my mind, that she helped my eyes open and see the world better. She was doing the right thing for our people. I’m sad that I lost my sister, but I am so proud that she died doing what she believed was right.