The man who has become the face of Myanmar’s resistance movement speaks by video link from an undisclosed location. Whether he is in Myanmar or beyond its borders is unknown. He provided a time zone when scheduling the meeting, but cautioned against guessing his whereabouts – it was simply a timeframe when Dr Sasa agreed to be awake for the call.
Dr Sasa, the only name he goes by, is wearing a dark suit with a violet tie. Behind him is a blank wall, but there are shelves on either side of the desk, upon which rest a Bible, a bonsai tree and a framed Christian blessing: The Lord bless you and keep you.
Dr Sasa makes a couple of matter-of-fact references to his unrelenting workload. Even before the coup, he had a reputation of being a workaholic and gets only three or four hours’ sleep a night. He speaks with passion but looks weary, and the psychological burden of such a precarious existence must be taking its toll.
“I am laying down my life every day,” he told the Globe.
Not long after, Dr Sasa became unwell with an unspecified condition that began earlier in the year. In a social media post, he announced that he was cutting down his work as much as he could while undergoing treatment for an illness that he attributed in part to the “stress and magnitude of our relief efforts”.
Before the Myanmar military overthrew civilian governance in its 1 February coup, Dr Sasa was due to take up a ministerial portfolio in the government formed by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the victorious party in the November 2020 elections. He had also been appointed by a parliamentary committee as an envoy to the UN.
I see that there is hesitation among the international community to recognise us. I cannot understand why. The people of Myanmar gave us a mandate
But the violence of the coup forced the doctor and many others into exile and, since fleeing the capital city of Naypyidaw disguised as a taxi driver shortly after the military takeover, Dr Sasa has remained in hiding. The new junta charged him with high treason in May, and he now faces almost certain death should he be captured by the military, known as the Tatmadaw.
Today, Dr Sasa is the spokesperson of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), which is composed largely of members of the ousted civilian leadership and regarded by the military as a terrorist group. He’s also the unity government’s Minister for International Cooperation, a job that tasks him with winning global support for the beleaguered authority.
This has not been an easy task. Since its formation in April, the NUG has not been officially recognised by any of the world’s governments, a status Dr Sasa says is deeply frustrating. He says officials of foreign governments have agreed to meet with him, but so far, progress has not gone beyond that.
“I see that there is hesitation among the international community to recognise us. I cannot understand why. The people of Myanmar gave us a mandate: The 2020 elections were free and fair and the results were respected by the entire world.”
Still, while unilateral diplomacy has been fruitless so far, Dr Sasa and the unity government have their hopes set on the possibility of a major win on the global stage, where the military government and the civilian NUG are now vying for recognition at the upcoming UN General Assembly (UNGA) to be held 14 September in New York City. This effectively puts the UNGA to task for selecting who will represent Myanmar, creating a rare but not unprecedented possibility for an ousted government like Dr Sasa’s to be chosen, as occurred for Haiti in 1992 and Sierra Leone in 1997.
The UNGA has shown early signs of support for the NUG. In June, it passed a resolution calling on the Tatmadaw to respect the will of the people and called on nations to end arms dealing to Myanmar. Such a move is rare, and the only vote against the resolution came from Belarus.
Dr Sasa believes that although the NUG is in exile, it is the people’s government and should be recognised by the UNGA. The NUG is composed of 2020 election winners and community leaders from ethnic minority groups; there are also plans to provide the persecuted Rohingya minority with citizenship and repatriation.
“This is the first time in the history of Myanmar that we are able to bring our people together under a government that reflects that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. We recognise that our nation’s greatest strength is in our diversity, and this is the time that we need international support.”
But there’s no guarantee the UNGA will select the civilian government over the military – or choose either. The selection process was so contentious for Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 1996 and Cambodia in 1997, when the Cambodian People’s Party seized power after an election loss, that the committee deferred making a decision altogether.
However, some analysts say an empty chair for Myanmar would be a “potent reflection” of the situation on the ground six months after the coup. As long as the UNGA does not recognise the new junta, the NUG could claim a moral victory at the UN. That may in turn spur global leaders to recognise the civilian leadership as Myanmar’s legitimate government, further isolating the military.
Dr Tun Aung Shwe, an ambassador of the unity government urging its official recognition by Australia, says he is almost certain that the UNGA will not recognise the junta, as too many members oppose it.
“The psychological benefit of it [the military] not being recognised would be immense,” Tun Aung Shwe told the Globe. “The number of men deserting the military is almost at a threshold level: It would propel so many more to leave. It would also be the first step in taking General Min Aung Hlaing to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.”
A decision will be made by the first week of December. For now at least, it seems that the country known by two names – Myanmar and Burma – also effectively has two governments.
Although his current situation arguably presents the greatest challenge Dr Sasa has faced, he’s no stranger to steep odds. He grew up in remote Chin State near Myanmar’s border with India. He doesn’t know his exact age, since he has no birth certificate, but believes he is in his early forties.
In younger days, Dr Sasa was the first person in his village to attend high school and he went on to attend college in India. He got his medical degree in Armenia, because the cost was half the price of a degree in India. He speaks six languages and has visited Buckingham Palace to meet with Prince Charles, who remains a patron of Dr Sasa’s charitable organisation, Health and Hope.
Even in exile, the Chin ethnic minority doctor regularly addresses his legions of social media followers – he has nearly 3 million on Facebook alone – and posts photos of his online meetings. He had long been popular as a motivational speaker among ethnic minority communities, but he has shot to fame both at home and abroad since the coup due to his charisma and powerful oratory skills, and is tipped to become the nation’s next leader, should democracy be restored.
The NUG exists under siege, hunted as it is by the Tatmadaw. Even its ministerial websites have been attacked by cyber-criminals thought to be directed by the junta. But Dr Sasa says the civilian government still does what it can to enact policy, even as it faces existential challenges.
“The NUG is taking responsibility for the whole country and defending democracy, but we have no resources,” he said. “I am living off the charity of friends. How long is it realistic for this kind of a situation to continue?”
[Australia] do not want to do anything that appears to legitimise the military regime or shows engagement with the NUG
On the foreign policy side, the NUG in July effectively appointed its own ‘ambassadors’ to Australia, the US, the Czech Republic, France and South Korea. Sasa refers to Australia as ‘Australasia’ because it is the “gateway to Asia” and says that its support for the NUG would lend great influence at ASEAN, which to date has sidelined the NUG in favour of the junta.
“We are asking the government of Australia to quickly recognise us as the only legitimate government of Myanmar, so that we can work for the people during this difficult time,” Dr Sasa said.
In Sydney, Tun Aung Shwe is tasked with promoting “relations and cooperation” between the two countries and has so far held meetings with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The Myanmar diaspora in Australia has presented a petition to the Australian government calling for NUG recognition, and Tun Aung Shwe has taken part in protests in Sydney against military rule. His own father was a founding member in the 1980s of now-deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and later became a political prisoner, before dying in prison in 1996.
Tun Aung Shwe is establishing regular channels of communication with DFAT, and says progress is going well in that regard, with the first high-level, closed-door meeting between the NUG and members of Australia’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade having taken place on August 31. The outcome of that meeting is unknown, however Australia has a policy of not taking sides when it comes to contested governments.
“During my discussions with government officials and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Canberra, I have been told that Australia has a policy of recognising states, not governments,” Tun Aung Shwe explained.
“They do not want to do anything that appears to legitimise the military regime or shows engagement with the NUG. It engages in communication and cooperation privately. While we understand their position, we continue to request recognition.”
But while the NUG pushes for recognition abroad, at home a raging public health crisis is at the forefront of the unity government’s efforts.
The NUG is pushing on with providing help to the Myanmar public in facing the Covid crisis, and the Australian government is donating surplus Astra-Zeneca vaccines. The NUG has begun providing telehealth consults for Covid patients and is trying to re-establish a Covid vaccination programme in collaboration with the COVAX programme of the WHO.
Dr Sasa stresses how much more effective the NUG’s Covid-19 Taskforce could be if it had actual funding for its work – something that may be more likely to come with international recognition.
“We’ve been working around the clock and so far, we have secured 5 million doses from international partners and donors,” Dr Sasa said. “Our aim is to vaccinate 30% of the population by the end of this year. I can tell you that I have met with many governments around the world, including the Australian government, but I cannot go into any further details because of concerns that the military junta will attack our Covid-19 programme.”
So far, the Ministry of Health has officially recorded more than 15,000 deaths from Covid-19, though international health experts believe the real number is much higher, pointing to minimal viral testing and the greatly reduced capacity of the Myanmar health system. After seizing control, the military dismantled the ousted government’s Covid-19 taskforce, which had established infrastructure to contain two previous outbreaks.
Since 1 February, the junta has been accused of confiscating vaccines and hoarding oxygen supplies so that private clinics cannot provide it to those in need. It has also seized cross border imports of medical supplies from charities, which are instead used by the military and their families. In July, it shot at people who were queuing up for oxygen tanks in Yangon.
Looking at the chaotic public health situation and growing risk of starvation due to societal failures, Dr Sasa has consistently advocated for the UN Security Council to intervene based on the Responsibility to Protect principle. While direct UN intervention may be a distant prospect, the upcoming UNGA assembly may give Dr Sasa and the unity government a real chance to leverage international support.
Despite the obstacles facing the civilian leadership, Dr Sasa is resolute that democracy will be restored in Myanmar.
“Our commitment is unshakable,” he said. “The military can kill our body; they can destroy our house and our property. They can bring death and distress. But they will never be able to kill our hope for the future of Myanmar; for a new Myanmar with peace, stability and prosperity and the rights of all peoples respected.”
He paused before adding: “Nothing is going to stop us.”