Peace and the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Poverty and social injustice. The flight to Bangladesh of over 700.000 Rohingya persecuted by the army in the internal State of Rakhine and the populations’ fears of the infiltration of terrorists from Syria. Interreligious dialogue with Theravada Buddhism. The difficult democratic transition process of the civil government of Aung San Suu Kyi, forced to come to terms with the army that continues exerting control over several key-ministries and important economic sectors, which could regain power without the support of the international community. Cardinal Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon, is preparing to welcome Pope Francis, due to visit the Country November 27-30, together with the small community of Myanmar numbering approximately 700.000 people, most of whom belong to ethnic minority groups. His Eminence openly answered all of our questions.
What are the expectations of the Catholic population with regard to Pope Francis’ upcoming visit?
The Pope will be making a pastoral visit. Our Catholics have a deep love for the Pope and they believe he will be coming as a pilgrim of peace to usher in a new dawn of peace.
Our Country needs peace.
The Pope is a world leader, his visit to this land will help other men and women of faith, especially the Buddhist majority, to learn more about the Church. There is a great need for love and peace at all levels: in the family, in communities and nationwide. Our people have a rich ethnical heritage, and many are those who were discriminated. Many of them are refugees and displaced persons.
The Pope’s presence will provide balm for our beloved people.
Why did Pope Francis decide to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh in the same journey? How are the two Countries linked to each other?
The Pope is an exceptional shepherd who seeks the sheep living on the margins of society. He “elevated the humble”, as in Mary’s hymn of praise: Magnificat. Pope Francis has already blessed the two Churches of Myanmar and Bangladesh with the creation of two Cardinals. Ours is a small minority: there are 700.000 Catholics in Myanmar; less than 400.000 in Bangladesh. We are reminded of when Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Like Zacchaeus we are moved by the Pope’s compassion, but we also know that he loves those living on the margins, he loves the small flocks of these nations.
Do you expect him to open new roads for interreligious dialogue?
Yes, I have deep faith in interreligious dialogue. In fact we helped promote the first interreligious gathering for peace in our Country.
The Pope is expected to meet Buddhist monks and other religious leaders. His message will focus on the ways in which religions can come together to build peace.
I firmly believe that his personality and his message will soften the hearts of uncompromising people who abuse religion, and transform it into an instrument of peace.
After his visit the Church of Myanmar will do her utmost to promote interreligious initiatives. We will work for peace and to foster friendship between communities.
The Catholic Church has earned the trust of all communities, and she can motivate them to engage in peace-building efforts.
A large number of ethnic and minority groups in Myanmar don’t live in peace, what is the situation of human rights?
The Pope has addressed these issues in other circumstances. His Encyclical letters spell out two injustices that go against God’s will: economic injustice (Evangelii Gaudium) and ecological injustice (Laudato si’). Our people are a sad example of these two injustices.
Over the past 60 years clientelism and the exploitation of natural resources have had a severe impact on our people. These two evils have made 80% of the population poor, 40% were reduced to a state of extreme poverty.
Poverty is an asphyxiating reality. Widespread injustice has led many groups to seek solutions, sometimes with peaceful means, other times by resorting to weapons. A very high price has been paid, with thousands left displaced and hundreds of victims. The Pope has made it clear: there can be no peace without justice. Civil and political rights started to gain momentum in 2010. But our people belong to ethnic minorities: for them, economic, social and cultural rights are as important as they are absent.
This explains the chronic nature of conflicts. Without rights there can be no peace.
The Rohingya crisis hit the headlines worldwide, also Pope Francis voiced his concern on several occasions. What’s the situation on the ground?
It’s a complex issue, further complicated by media outlets.
Over the past 60 years Myanmar experienced various humanitarian crises. Approximately one million people are internally displaced. The Kachin people, the majority of whom are Christian, live in refugee camps.
International media outlets are focusing on the situation of the Rohingya, which is necessary, but they forget to mention the other humanitarian crises. Citizenship rights are an important theme that involves the local and the international community alike. Not only the Rohingya: also many Christians of Indian origin are denied citizenship rights, although they have lived here for four generations. The government is not responsible for one community alone. The Citizenship Act was promulgated in 1982 by a military junta, and it needs to be reviewed by the civil government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The recent exodus is very sad and deeply moving. With no doubt, the government could have handled it better. But the civil government has a limited role in the Country’s governance.
They don’t have full control of the military. Recent events provoked fierce military intervention, causing the flight of thousands of people. Furthermore, feelings of Islamophobia are growing worldwide. Many Western Countries have issued laws preventing Muslims from entering the Country. Also Myanmar is reacting in ways that are distant from its own tradition. The exodus is a tragedy. But it should be remembered that is was triggered by a terror attack. There had been another terror attack in August 2016 and the victims of the conflict did not leave the Country, they remained in the camps.
This time there is reason to believe that violent extremists are arriving to Myanmar from Syria to open a front. It’s a frightening scenario for everyone living here. And it’s the reason why the local population supports military intervention.
What could be the solution?
Everyone should get a clear picture of the situation on the ground, before making hasty condemnations. Myanmar’s government should understand that the laws regulating citizenship rights should be reviewed by neutral parties. The international community should acknowledge the fact that Myanmar’s government and population fear an external, radical reaction.
Three years have passed since Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory: what’s your assessment?
Aung San Suu Kyi is like a nurse tasked with caring for a patient recovering from a long diseases. Myanmar was afflicted by totalitarianism for 60 years.
She took the reins only 18 months ago. Huge challenges lie ahead and she must pass through a very tight loop. One wrong move could cost her dearly. It should be understood by everyone that the talks with the army require a high degree of democracy. The military have seized control of the government twice already. In 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi gained a sweeping majority vote, the army refused to acknowledge her win and placed her again under house arrest.
She wants democratic stability, and this requires the good will of the military.
As a person, she proved to have great self-discipline and hard-working skills. As a woman she needs to rely on people whom she can trust. Unfortunately, the latter are only a small group, with no experience of the development of a nation. That’s why she makes small steps. Economic development progresses at a very slow pace, industrialization and direct foreign investment didn’t meet expectations. Economic and business experts should be involved.
Aung San Suu Kyi is being accused of having addressed the Rohingya’s situation when it was too late, and of having failed to voice a clear condemnation of the violence committed by the army….
Indeed, she spoke of the Muslims’ situation in the State of Rakhine only at a later stage. We underlined it in many interviews, but she failed to condemn the acts of violence. She promised she would bring to justice all those who breached the law and human rights. But it’s an arduous task. Unfortunately, over the last period she has been severely criticized by international media outlets.
But a power vacuum would only benefit the army and the nation could plunge back into the sad past.
That is why the majority of Myanmar’s citizens support her. History will judge her. Many of her advocates in the Western world have stopped supporting her. She needs them and they need her to ensure the growth of democracy in this Country. She is 72 and she needs all of our prayers and our full support.