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Myanmar nun becomes symbol of resistance as she puts herself between police and protesters

"If you want to do this, you have to come through me," Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng told Myanmar police.
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Dressed in a white habit and a dark veil, Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng knelt before Myanmar military forces and told them, "You'll have to come through me."

A picture of her dramatic plea electrified protesters and made headlines around the world, which has been watching an increasingly brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters after last month's military coup.

At a rally in the city of Myitkyina last week, Sister Ann Roza, 45, told U.K. broadcaster Sky News that she had pleaded with police "not to beat, not to arrest, not to crack down on the protesters, because the protesters were not doing anything bad — they were just shouting slogans. " (Sky News is owned by Comcast, the parent company of NBC News.)

A nun pleading with police not to harm protesters in Myanmar.
Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng pleads with police not to harm protesters in the city of Myitkyina in Myanmar.Myitkyina News Journal / AFP - Getty Images

Asked to leave, she refused. "The police were also kneeling, and they told me they had to do it because this was to stop the protest," she said. "I replied: 'No, if you want to do this, you have to come through me.'"

Moments later, tear gas was fired and gunshots rang out.

With her vision impaired, she was unable to say whether the shots were fired by the officers she spoke with or by members of the military.

As she struggled to breathe, she saw a man who had fallen down in the street. She quickly realized he had been shot.

He was taken to a clinic for treatment, she said, and died later from his injuries. Another person died on the spot, she said.

The sister had already placed herself between the police and protesters in the city on Feb. 28.

In a separate interview with Sky News, Sister Ann Roza said that on that occasion, she "thought today is the day I will die" and that she had "decided to die."

"I thought it would be better that I die instead of lots of people," she said.

Police also opened fire on protesters and beat some of them.

She survived both times. Others have been less fortunate.

Thomas Andrews, the U.N.'s human rights investigator in the country, said Thursday that at least 70 people had been "murdered" since the army seized power Feb. 1 and detained the government's elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and much of her party leadership, alleging fraud in a November election that her party won in a landslide.

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Accusing the military junta of perpetrating killings, torture and persecution that may constitute crimes against humanity, Andrews told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that more than half of those killed were under age 25. He added that more than 2,000 people had been unlawfully detained.

"The country of Myanmar is being controlled by a murderous, illegal regime," he said.

The coup brought a halt to tentative steps toward democracy in Myanmar, a southeast Asian country of 54 million people, after nearly 50 years of military rule, and it has drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

Western countries have condemned the military's actions, and some have imposed limited sanctions, but the generals have traditionally shrugged off such diplomatic pressure. They have promised to hold a new election but have not set a date.

Sister Ann Roza said the generals were not protecting the people, who "have to defend themselves."

She pledged to pray for both the military and the protesters, warning that "people are not safe anymore in Myanmar, which used to be a place for happiness."

She added that she would ask "people abroad to pray for us."

"May God bless you," she said. "I salute the fallen souls."