Photo Credit: One Championship
Awng La Nsang, or Nsang Awng La, according to the Kachin nomenclature of putting family name before given name, is a name that set all of Myanmar abuzz with his iconic victory over the reigning champion to capture the Mixed Martial Arts Middleweight World Championship title. His win is historic, not only in the sense that it is the first ever international championship title for a Burma-born athlete, but also because it pulled off, if only temporarily, the almost unimaginable feat of bridging racial and religious fault lines in the deeply divisive society that is Myanmar.
Now that the dust has settled somewhat over the euphoria of the momentous June 30 win, it remains to be seen if or how Myanmar officialdom intends to honor Awng La,who for all intents and purposes represented the country on an international stage, although not technically a Myanmar national. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and military families have led the way by honoring him with a congratulatory letter and substantial monetary gift. The challenge then is for the NLD-led government to follow up on that. Bestowing an honorary citizenship would be a laudable move, and could even be seen as a one-upmanship on the military gesture. Given that the State Counsellor herself has garnered many honorary citizenships from foreign countries, it does seem a natural and fitting honor for the beloved sports hero.
Nsang Awng La is someone who, although having spent most of his adult life in the United States where he is a naturalized citizen, has not forgotten his roots. He embodies all those Burma-borns who may have adopted the citizenship of other lands, but in their heart of hearts still call Myanmar home. As Awng La himself has said, “This is where my heart lives and has stayed. I will always be home in Myanmar.” And he acknowledged the adulation of his Myanmar fans, who have embraced him wholeheartedly, some might even way fanatically, by declaring at the apex of his victory: “Myanmar, how does it feel to have a world champion?
Another facet of Awng La’s identity is his Kachin roots. He is proud of his heritage as can be seen in the huge “Jinghpaw” emblazoned on his tattooed back. He follows in the footsteps of other Kachin sports greats like Sgt. Myitung Naw and Sgt. Shingbwi Gam, who in the 1960s, represented Burma internationally in marathon events. These Kachin sportsmen are rarely remembered today, but in their heyday their consistent wins at the national level prompted the leading English language newspaper, The Nation, to declare that “From now on, nobody can beat the Kachins in the marathon event.” The Kachin marathoners proved to be worthy goodwill ambassadors for Burma (as the country was then called) on the world stage, as undoubtedly Nsang Awng La will, at every given opportunity.
As a Kachin, he feels deeply for his brethren, especially the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of the on-going civil war, who for more than 6 years have been subjected to untold hardships in camps for the internally displaced. He has expressed solidarity with them, and vowed to do what he could to come to their aid. Putting his money where his mouth is, he has raised funds for the IDPs, through the auctioning of personal sports memorabilia which fetched quite a substantial sum.
But he is not content with just raising funds. He has said, “It makes me very sad that there is war in Kachin,” and that “We need to get along and work together if we want a better future for this country.”Although it goes without saying that there is no easy cure for the complex and long simmering ethnic and political tensions that bedevil strife-torn Myanmar, an opening step could be made in the elusive quest for national peace and reconciliation if citizens of all stripes and colors, especially the powers that be, take Awng La’s cue to genuinely “get along and work together”.
Awng La Nsang has expressed the desire to capitalize on his celebrity status to help unify and inspire the people of his birth country. At present, it is difficult to imagine a more unifying figure than Awng La, and bestowing honorary citizenship would be a way of harnessing the potential he has of bringing healing to a society long fractured by ethnic and religious divides. Besides, an honor for Awng La would translate as an honor for his beloved Kachin, a much-needed goodwill gesture to the downtrodden, war weary, co-founders of the Union.
An added bonus would be the authentication of “Burmese” in”Burmese Python”, the moniker by which Awng La is known internationally in the mixed martial arts world, and allow his legions of Burmese fans to rightfully claim him as their very own.