One of the last pictures of Kyal Sin shows her crouching on the street amid a crowd of protesters. Many of those around her wear construction helmets or hold makeshift shields to protect themselves against the security forces. She herself wears only ripped jeans and a black T-shirt that reads: “Everything will be OK.” A pair of goggles to guard her eyes against tear gas hangs around her neck.
Kyal Sin was one of the throngs of young people who have taken to the streets to resist the coup that returned Myanmar to full military control after a few brief years of freedom. Described in some reports as 18, others 19, she liked martial arts and went by the English nickname Angel.
After the country’s generals shut down the country’s fragile democracy on Feb. 1, she joined the protests in the northern city of Mandalay. She was fully aware of the dangers: She put her blood type on Facebook and pledged to donate her organs if worse came to worst.
When soldiers and police went on the offensive this week, she was in the thick of the action. Witnesses said she kicked open a water pipe so others could cleanse their eyes after being gassed. As security troops opened fire, she rallied the crowd by shouting: “Are we united?” Others chanted back: “United, United.” Not long after, she was struck in the head by a bullet, becoming one of the dozens of people killed by the military in its brutal crackdown.
Kyal Sin has become an overnight symbol of resistance. Hundreds of people lined the route of her funeral procession. Her Facebook page is crowded with praise for her courage. Protesters brandish posters bearing pictures of the impossibly brave young woman in the black T-shirt.
Will her sacrifice make any difference? The odds against the protesters are daunting. The military is well-equipped and ruthless. In 1988 and again in 2007, it used violent force to suppress peaceful protests for democracy. This time around, its brutality is being shown in real time, captured in cellphone images and video footage that are out there for all the world to see. In one bit of footage, police beat a group of volunteer medics with rifle butts and batons. In another, they appear to pull a man out of a house and shoot him point blank. Security forces are using water cannons, stun grenades and now live ammunition to drive back crowds.
But the protests are making a difference. Even a regime as cruel and stubborn as this one cannot be entirely deaf to the opprobrium that has been raining down on it since the coup, which overturned the result of a legitimate democratic election. Dozens of countries have condemned it.
U.S. President Joe Biden called it “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.”
More important, the people of Myanmar have found their courage. They have had a small taste of liberty and refuse to let it go. In the elections in November, they again voted overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains popular at home despite the well-deserved discredit she earned abroad when she defended a crackdown on a Muslim minority, the Rohingya.
It was she who wrote in a 1991 essay that her people must “liberate their own minds from apathy and fear,” becoming like splinters of glass in cupped hands, with their “glinting power” to defend “against hands that try to crush.”
Those splinters are glinting brightly today. From the moment the military seized power, rounding up Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of others after claiming, ridiculously, that the November election was fraudulent, they have made it clear that they would not accept the return of unchecked military rule. Huge crowds turned out for a general strike last month, holding up their hands in the three-finger sign of resistance. Women, many of them young and hopeful like Kyal Sin, have been in the forefront.
In that picture of her on the streets of Mandalay, her fellow protesters are flattening themselves to the pavement, heads down. Her head is raised, an urgent expression on her face. She stretches her arm behind her as if to urge others forward – as if to say: Take heart, everything will be okay.
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