The protesters rode motorbikes through Mandalay with a banner reading declaring their support for the provisional government opposed to military rule. But all of them, male and female alike, wore masks printed with the same face of a man grinning brightly from beneath close-cropped hair.
The same face appeared again last month in eastern Kayin State’s Hpa-an Township when Eaindu community residents waved ethnic minority flags and declared their support for the National Unity Government, aka NUG.
Since then, his visage has become almost as ubiquitous among protesters as that of deposed and jailed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, appearing on everything from T-shirts and banners to internet memes and tribute posts.
In a little over three months, Salai Maung Taing San – just call him Dr. Sasa – has become a household name in the Myanmar diaspora by speaking for the shadow government in countless news stories, television interviews, Zoom gatherings and social media posts. He projects an affable and calming presence that belies his fierce advocacy for Myanmar as the UN envoy for those who say they would end decades of strife and usher the nation into a new egalitarian age – once the military is reined in.
That beaming smile is the public face of that optimism, catapulting the ethnic Chin doctor, philanthropist and activist into the international spotlight and spawning a cult following at home.
On the morning of Feb. 1, Sasa was in the same room as State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi when security forces surrounded the compound housing lawmakers about to be sworn into office. Disguised as a taxi driver, he made a daring escape lasting three days and three nights and has been operating from somewhere along the border of Myanmar and India.
He did not reply to several messages and emails seeking comment for this story.
I am happy to see lots of Dr Sasa in Mandalay, thank you all for your support, together we are winning over these evils military generals, the new Myanmar is coming where the new future for all are waiting pic.twitter.com/agKT4PccJl
— Dr. Sasa (@DrSasa22222) April 15, 2021
The junta – or as it prefers to be known, the State Administrative Council – just a few weeks later charged him with high treason for accepting the appointment to be the envoy for what was then called the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in reference to the disbanded legislature, accusing him of inciting diplomats to join the civil disobedience movement as well as calling for international sanctions against. He was also appointed as the International Cooperation Minister when the NUG was formed.
In a statement on social media, Sasa laughed off the charge and said that he was “proud” to be charged and called it a “desperate move.”
The Tatmadaw’s blanket ban on social media platforms in Myanmar hasn’t stopped fan groups such as We Love Dr. Sasa from sprouting up and drawing hundreds of thousands of ardent supporters who follow the opposition figure’s every move. His own public page boasts more than 2.6 million followers.
Many pin their hopes on the leadership of a man who was unknown before the Feb. 1 coup d’etat, though he had worked as a community organizer, health care professional, politician and humanitarian.
“You’re leading us to the path of freedom and righteousness which we had been waiting for so many decades. Believe in you and respect you as our great leader. Keep on fighting until we get the federal Democracy for Myanmar, our country,” a commenter said.
Brave students peacefully expressing fundamental rights to freedom of expression were jailed but murderer in chief MAH-SAC gunmen, reign on terror, occupied college are freely roaming across the nation with battlefield weapons &shoot to kill order, I salute you all students. pic.twitter.com/8GmpCByos4
— Dr. Sasa (@DrSasa22222) April 30, 2021
These groups also function as news-sharing platforms where netizens swap news, information, memes, opinion pieces and amateur news analysis.
His profile in part owes to his frenetic activity on social media. Just today, he has issued statements on alleged junta atrocities against minority groups and another thanking donors in Denmark. Sunday was a relatively light day when he issued a declaration thanking artists worldwide for their support. Many of his missives are authored in both Burmese and English, and he frequently thanks his newfound fans.
Thank you for your love, supports and prayers. I am so grateful pic.twitter.com/nDKug8r3Wa
— Dr. Sasa (@DrSasa22222) April 27, 2021
Sasa doesn’t know exactly when he was born in the kitchen of his family home in Chin state’s Lailenpi but believes that he’s around 40. He credits his difficult childhood for informing his lifelong humanitarian work.
“We were not living, just surviving. It was a very difficult place to grow up as a child. Many families couldn’t afford food for their children,” he told The Guardian in 2018.
“There were no hospitals, no running water, no electricity, no roads, no schools, no notebooks,” he continued.
After seeing death at a young age – a childhood friend from diarrhea, his mom’s best friend in childbirth – Sasa said he decided to become a doctor.
Sasa says he journeyed for weeks on foot through rivers, valleys and mountains from remote Chin state to Yangon to complete his education.
Members of his Chin community saw his potential and pooled their money, selling “chickens, pigs and cows” to send him to Armenia to earn a doctorate.
Upon his return, he has said that he realized meeting the demands of hundreds of thousands was more than a one-man job, so he trained a cadre of community health workers and went on to found Health and Hope Myanmar in partnership with Health and Hope UK to provide health care, education and food to impoverished communities nationwide.
These days he works to get face time with politicians, activists and civil society leaders around the world to win recognition for the NUG and deny legitimacy to the junta.
In a remarkable departure from the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi, Sasa, who had refused to acknowledge the genocide and suffering of the Rohingya, Sasa has openly denounced their murder at the hands of the military and announced his solidarity with the persecuted ethnic minority, calling them “our brothers and sisters.”
After years of a denials and complicity by the civilian leadership, which led to a rupture with their natural allies in the west over human rights abuses, other NUG-appointed ministers including Minister of Women, Youth, and Children Affairs Susanna Hla Hla Soe have publicly apologized for not standing with the Rohingya.
The doctor has not been without criticism. Last week he landed in hot water after announcing the appointment of Myanmar human rights activist, educator and activist Maung Zarni to lead a department at the Ministry of International Cooperation.
Netizens reacted in shock due to Maung Zarni’s continued critiques of the NUG and a long and controversial history within the Myanmar diaspora. The announcement was quickly deleted and the appointment rescinded.
— Cape Diamond (@cape_diamond) May 21, 2021
Reacting to the withdrawal, Maung Zarni reacted sarcastically by saying SaSa was under NUG investigation for appointing him due to his “anti-genocide, -racist, -NLD autocracy” stances.