MYANMAR – Persecution has strengthened the Church
Myanmar’s first cardinal, Charles Bo, thanked the Christians of the West for helping to bring democracy to his country. “Having survived more than half a century of Calvary, Burma is now entering a time of hope” he said. The Archbishop of Rangoon recalled the persecution of the Church which has been going on since 1962 when the military regime took over in Burma (Myanmar).
For many years Burma was isolated behind a bamboo curtain. “We were a crucified nation,” he said. “Propagation of Christianity was banned, new churches could not be built, and personnel had to be sent out of the country for any training. In many places, being Christian was the greatest liability : “The language and cultural rights of our people were taken away by the one-language, one-race and one-religion policy,” adding, “Yet God did not abandon our nation. The Church was like the mustard seed and, like the biblical example, it grew into a tree.”
Despite the many years of oppression, Cardinal Bo said that the Catholic Church in Myanmar became a “young and vibrant Church” that “grew from just three diocese to 16 dioceses. From 100,000 people, we are over 800,000 faithful, from 160 priests to 800 priests, from 300 religious we are now 2,200 religious and 60 per cent of them are below the age of 40.” Now, he stated, Myanmar sends missionaries to other countries.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon said the Catholic Church was “at the forefront” of supporting the people of Myanmar, formerly Burma, during a dictatorship that lasted half a century. “The world community refused to accept the oppression … and spoke against that,” Cardinal Bo said.
“The Church as a community refused to allow the oppression of Christians and others in Burma,” he said. “Every Church, including the U.K. church, was at the forefront of supporting us.” The cardinal told the congregation that Catholics “are united by a special bond of community. It is this sense of community which has helped many Christians around the world to survive hardship and emerge stronger.
“My heart is filled with gratitude to all the Christians, civil society leaders and governments, that the sense of community helped them to think of Burma,” he added. “Your concern has led us to see the light of democracy, and I urge you to continue to accompany us, especially through your prayers.”
Cardinal Bo’s visit to Liverpool was the final stop of a British tour at the invitation of the charities Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. His visit came six months after the National League for Democracy won a landslide election that ended about 50 years of dictatorship in the Southeast Asian country.
On a visit to Stonyhurst College , Cardinal Bo outlined the problems his country still faces:
“Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.
As I have said before, my country now stands on the threshold of hope. After over half a century of brutal oppression at the hands of a succession of military regimes, and after more than sixty years of civil war, we now have the possibility to begin to build a new Myanmar, to develop the values of democracy, to better protect and promote human rights, to work for peace. Myanmar has woken to a new dawn. We have a chance – for the first time in my lifetime – of making progress towards reconciliation and freedom as a nation. There is a vibrant civil society and a freer media. We know that while evil has an expiry date, hope has no expiry date.
And yet there is a very, very long way to go; there are many, many challenges to confront; and no one should think that the election of the new government means that our struggle is over. It is just the very beginning.
The list of challenges is enormous. Poverty, education, human trafficking, drugs, protecting freedom of expression, constitutional reform, the economy, health care – these are all just some of these challenges. In Myanmar today, 60% of children never finish primary school; maternal mortality is the highest in the region; the country has the lowest doctor to patient ratio in the region. Myanmar is the second biggest producer of opium in the world.
Among the biggest challenges are protecting freedom of religion or belief for all, and resolving ethnic conflict. We desperately need to work to defend rights without discrimination, to establish equal rights for all people in Myanmar, of every ethnicity and religion.
As I wrote two years ago in the Washington Post, “Myanmar is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, with a majority Burman, Buddhist population. If Myanmar is to be truly free, peaceful and prosperous, the rights of all ethnicities and religious faiths must be protected.”
Over the past four years, the rights of religious minorities have come under increasing threat. Starting with the violence in Rakhine State in 2012, spreading to an anti-Muslim campaign in Meikhtila, Oakkan and Lashio in 2013, and to Mandalay in 2014, and then moving from violence, killing and destruction to a more insidious campaign of discrimination, hate speech and restrictive legislation, this movement – which began as a group called ‘969’ and transformed into an organisation known as ‘Ma Ba Tha’ – is based on an extremist, intolerant form of Buddhist nationalism that completely distorts the key teachings of Buddhism – of ‘Metta’, loving kindness, and ‘Karuna’, compassion – and instead preaches hatred and incites violence. I have described this movement as a neo-fascist group, or merchants of hatred, and they continue to pose a threat to our fragile nascent democracy and to the prospects of peace, prosperity and stability.
Last year, the previous government in Myanmar introduced a package of four new laws, known as the ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’, which pose a serious danger for our country. Two of these laws restrict the right to religious conversion and inter-faith marriage. Such basic rights – whom to marry and what to believe – are among the most basic human rights, and yet these new laws restrict such basic freedoms. As I said several times, these laws threaten the dream of a united Myanmar.
I am also deeply concerned about the misuse of Section 295 of Myanmar’s Penal Code, the section relating to insulting religion. Although originally introduced in the colonial time with the intention of preventing inter-religious conflict, this law is now used to silence critics of extremist Buddhist nationalism. Htin Lin Oo, himself a Buddhist, spoke out criticising the preachers of hate, saying that their message was incompatible with the teachings of Buddhism, and he was charged with insulting Buddhism and jailed for two years, though he was released last month.
A related challenge is the conflict in the ethnic states. The majority of the Kachin, Chin, Naga and Karenni peoples, and a significant proportion of the Karen, are Christians – and over the decades of armed conflict, the military has turned religion into a tool of oppression. In Chin State, for example, Christian crosses have been destroyed and Chin Christians have been forced to construct Buddhist pagodas in their place. Last year, two Kachin Christian school teachers were raped and murdered. At least 66 churches in Kachin state have been destroyed since the conflict reignited in 2011. Over 100,000 civilians are internally displaced because their homes have been burned down or the military surrounds their villages.
In Rakhine State, tensions between the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya erupted in 2012, leaving more than 130,000 displaced and hundreds dead. The plight of the Rohingyas is an appalling scar on the conscience of my country. They are among the most marginalised, dehumanised and persecuted people in the world. They are treated worse than animals. Stripped of their citizenship, rejected by neighbouring countries, they are rendered stateless. No human being deserves to be treated this way. I therefore appeal for assistance: humanitarian aid, and political assistance to help us resolve this conflict. There is a need to bring Rakhine and Rohingya together, to bring them around a table, to bring voices of moderation and peace together to find a solution. Without this, the prospects for genuine peace and true freedom for my country will be denied, for no one can sleep easy at night knowing how one particular people group are dying simply due to their race and religion.
Many have been killed in Myanmar’s ethnic and religious conflicts; and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. As Benedict Rogers and I said in an article we co-authored in The Myanmar Times in 2013: “True peace and real freedom hinge on an issue that has yet to be addressed: respect for Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity. Unless and until a genuine peace process is established with the ethnic nationalities, involving a nationwide political dialogue about the constitutional arrangements for the country, ceasefires will remain fragile and will not result in an end to war.” Furthermore, “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as detailed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is perhaps the most precious and most basic freedom of all. Without the freedom to choose, practise, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom.”
Another challenge is drugs. In Kachin state and northern Shan State, including my former diocese of Lashio, we face a drugs epidemic. We urgently need the help of the international community, not just – as is the case now – by handing out clean needles to addicts, but by helping establish centres for rehabilitation, and assisting in drug eradication. I understand the motives of international agencies distributing clean needles. They want to minimise the spread of HIV/AIDS and reduce the damage done. But we need a bigger vision. We need to help people off drugs; we need to stop the distribution of drugs; and we need to offer our people alternative livelihoods and some hope in life.
Finally, poverty. Myanmar remains one of the world’s poorest countries. If you come to Yangon and you sit in the traffic jams and you observe the new, expensive, imported cars and you visit five-star hotels filled with foreign business people, international NGOs and a new emerging local wealthy and middle-class, you would have one impression of my country. But go out to the slums in Yangon, only a few minutes from the luxury hotels. Go out to the villages and rural areas. Go out to the camps for internally displaced peoples. Or, even within the cities, visit a hospital or a school. And you will see the real Myanmar. A Myanmar of the poor, a Myanmar without adequate health care, a Myanmar which was once the “Rice Bowl” of Asia which boasted one of the most prestigious universities in South-East Asia wrecked by fifty years of corrupt and brutal military rule. The Generals destroyed our economy, ruined our education system and put no investment into public health. They send their own children to elite schools in Singapore; they go to Singapore for medical treatment; they spend most of their budget buying weapons instead of investing in public services. And so we face a huge challenge: to rebuild our education system and to provide proper health care.
In all of this, where is the Catholic Church in Myanmar? I can tell you with confidence that we are where the government is not. We are in the slums; we are in the camps for internally displaced people; we are working with our friends in the Buddhist and Muslim communities to promote inter-faith harmony; we are providing education, health care and livelihoods; we are advocating for our people. And thanks to the support of organisations like CSW, Missio and ACN, we are able to do this. But we too face limitations. For fifty years, Church schools have been closed, after Ne Win expelled missionaries and seized Church property. And so today I say to the Government of Myanmar: give us back our schools, and allow us to contribute to educating our people.
Myanmar is a rainbow nation. It is a beautiful country made up of diverse ethnicities and religions. The Catholic Church in Myanmar is representative of this. Eighteen months ago, when we gathered to celebrate 500 years of the Catholic Church in Myanmar, the array of colour displayed by the multiple different ethnic groups from around the country who came together, illustrated the beauty of the principle of ‘Unity in Diversity’. The Church has modelled, as a microcosm of wider society, the way Myanmar could be – and we are working with our Buddhist and Muslim brothers and sisters of varying ethnicities to build a Myanmar that is genuinely at peace with its diversity and that celebrates what your own former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, calls so powerfully “The Dignity of Difference” and leads to what, in the title of another of his powerful books he calls “The Home We Build Together”. We must take to heart the words from Lord Sacks’ book “To Heal a Fractured World” where he writes:
“Against the fundamentalisms of hate, we must create a counter-fundamentalism of love … ‘A little light’, said the Jewish mystics, ‘drives away much darkness’. And when light is joined to light, mine to yours and yours to others, the dance of flames, each so small, yet together so intricately beautiful, begins to show that hope is not an illusion. Evil, injustice, oppression, cruelty do not have the final word.”
Our world today is filled with challenges. Conflict, poverty, terrorism, extremism, climate change, homelessness, drugs, family breakdown, unemployment, injustice of all kinds. Yet there is a message of hope. And that is the message that the Church has been proclaiming for 2,000 years. In the dining room of Archbishop’s House in Yangon, my residence, I have a picture on the wall. It’s a picture of a cross. And next to the cross are the words: “I asked Jesus, how much do you love me? ‘This much’, he answered. Then he stretched out his arms and died.” He gave himself, so that we might be free – and He calls us, wherever we are, to give ourselves, so that others may be free. Or as Aung San Suu Kyi has said, “please use your liberty to promote ours”. You, young people of Britain and of your different nations, have the future before you; and you have the opportunity, if you choose to take it, to make yourselves available to God, to open your hearts to His Spirit, to place yourselves in His hands and then, together with Him, to make this world a better place. In the words of my episcopal motto, and the words of Philippians 4:13 – “Omnia possum in eo” – we can do all things in Him who strengthens us.“