As Pope Francis prepares to head to Burma Nov. 27-30 — the first papal visit to the country — what should he expect, and what impact is his apostolic voyage likely to have on the troubled country?
To find out, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon shared with the Register the current situation in the country, in particular the prevailing hardship and suffering facing the people of Burma, also known as Myanmar.
During the Pope’s trip, the Vatican said Wednesday, the Holy Father will meet the head of the Burmese army, and in Bangladesh, he will meet a small group of Rohingya refugees — both late additions to his itinerary.
Human rights groups have accused Burmese forces of atrocities, including mass rape, against the stateless Rohingya. It followed insurgent attacks by the Rohingya on 30 police posts and an army base.
Meeting with the Pope ahead of the visit, Cardinal Bo advised the Pope not to use the word Rohingya while in Burma because it is incendiary in the country where they are not recognized as an ethnic group. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Wednesday the Pope took this advice seriously but added: “We will find out together during the trip ... it is not a forbidden word.”
After six decades of dictatorship and brutal oppression, which has lessened but not yet fully ended, his nation “stands at the crossroads of history,” Cardinal Bo told the Register. “We need a moral voice now. His visit is eagerly awaited.”
Your Eminence, how important to you personally is the Holy Father’s visit?
The Church is a communion of communities. The Pope is the high priest of the Catholic communities of the world. Any Communion celebration has two components: breaking the word and breaking the Bread. For the last five years, he has broken the word of good news and concern for the poor and the environment in a strong manner.
Now he comes in person to break the Bread. That is the greatest significance. We connect with the whole Catholic community of the world, the people of the world.
So his Eucharist here with us will be breaking a great bread of human fellowship. Much spiritual benefit will accrue to the simple Catholics of Myanmar. I have never thought this phenomenon of a Pope’s visit would happen in my time. This is a “conspiracy of grace.” The Catholic community is blessed in many ways.
For those who might be unaware, what kind of nation will Pope Francis be arriving in? What, to you, are the major challenges and concerns?
This nation stands at the crossroads of history. Wounded and bruised by six decades of inhuman dark nights of dictatorship, our people are waiting for a dawn of justice and peace. This was once the richest country in Southeast Asia; now it is one of the bottom-10 poorest countries in the world. Endowed with all natural resources, a crony economy looted everything; strong men ate the bowels of the poor. Famished and forlorn, our youth sought unsafe migration, ending up as the ubiquitous slaves of the economic tigers of Southeast Asia. Three million of our youth are still slaves under modern pharaohs.
Much has been said lately about the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas, but less about Burmese Christians. What is their situation, and what other concerns are there?
The world is rightly worried about the Rohingyas, and this is needed. But it is still a fragmented response. Thousands of Christians are Internally Displaced People (IDP) inside the country; a million are living away from their homes. They are the modern-day Hebrews in the exasperating Exodus. War rages in two areas: Kachin and Shan.
In the past, a diluted education system mutilated the dreams of our youngsters. But this is improving. A new educational plan is introduced.
Next to Afghanistan, Myanmar is second-biggest country exposed to drug menace. Human trafficking of gullible youngsters to modern slavery and abuse of women is unabated.
We were a “Good Friday people.” We thought democracy would be our Easter, but things are not perfect. We oscillate between Holy Saturday and Easter. Some still remain on the cross: of land grabbing, poverty, unsafe migration, war and displacement.
On the positive note, something has changed. There is democracy, a parliament and a press that is asserting itself and greater interaction with the international community and civil society. Despite all roadblocks, the economy is growing.
You’ve said the Holy Father’s visit — the first ever by a pope — will heal the wounds of the nation. How could he best do this, in your view?
We need a moral voice now. His visit is eagerly awaited. He is the prince of peace. His interventions in Colombia and Cuba proved to be a catalyst for greater peace. Yet I would not be overly optimistic.
I am very hopeful that his presence and his words will be received with great enthusiasm by the majority and that his own ideas on economic justice and environmental justice would resonate with the majority.
This nation has eight tribes and 135 subtribes — a colorful golden land, indeed. But the majority group, the Bama, has a large number of poor. Economically wounded, many of them are forced to seek risky employment. His concern for the poor will be a healing message to all the poor. The other tribes are ethnic, indigenous tribes who base their life on nature. His message of Laudato Si will find a very sympathetic ear here.
Buddhist nationalism is said to be causing many great problems, particularly with the Rohingyas, and that, because of this, some say it would be better to postpone the visit. Do you have sympathy for those concerns?
Let us put it in perspective: Not all monks support nationalism. The majority of the people are very generous and accepting of all, but a few hate-mongers get the best press.
The U.S. is in the throes of identity politics. People who openly abused and banned a section of people, stereotyping them and poisoning the minds of good people, are elected to respectful offices, not only in one country — many Western countries.
“Fear of the other” is the best investment in the political Wall Street. Fear not freedom is sought in the name of democracy. The global Islamophobia is a dangerous weapon available to merchants of hate. Myanmar is no exception.
Rohingyas are not victims of the Burma nationalists alone. They are the victims of a global network of hatred. Some are guilty, all are responsible, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said. These poor Muslims fall victims to emerging global nationalists who are few, but they can be devastating in their effect. Most of our people are very peaceful, graceful people. We have no concern. The trip will go ahead, and the people of Myanmar will welcome this shepherd of hope and peace with joy.
How hopeful are you that justice and reconciliation can be reached between the government and the Rohingya, and might the Church help mediate such a resolution?
It is a long process. We have always urged justice to people who have lived here for a long time. It is not only Rohingyas whose citizenship is at stake. There are others who also suffer from this malice. The 1982 citizenship act was enacted by a military government. The democratic government must revisit this in a parliamentary process. It has already started a verification process and issuing verification documents.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [head of Myanmar’s civilian government] is on course in implementing the Kofi Annan recommendations. It [the government] has started a dialogue with the Bangladesh on repatriation.
The Church maintains a discrete presence in all these [areas]. We are an active partner in peacemaking, repatriation work and interreligious activities.
How supportive are you of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, especially in the face of recent controversies (she has been criticized for remaining silent and complicit during what has been described as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya), and do you foresee her being able to introduce democracy and the rule of law into the country in the long term?
We are animated by the Catholic social principle of the “greater good to the greater number of people.” What has happened with the Rohingya is very, very tragic, and we will work with all like-minded people in preventing any future recurrence.
Given the context, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the best hope for strengthening the fragile democracy. It is the early dawn of hope after a long night of darkness. We only hope any false move would result in this dawn becoming a nightmare of dusk.
As all know, she is not the leader, as per the constitution. She does not have much power. Her position is more moral than executive. The army still call the shots. She is walking a tightrope. A Myanmar without a leader like her at this present time would be a great risk. She is a democrat. She is the only leader accepted by the majority of people. She can strengthen democracy and the rule of law.
What would you most like the Holy Father to say to civil and political leaders?
As the logo of his visit says: love and peace. These are also the spiritual virtues of this nation. The Pope will surely talk on these themes. Peace with justice, peace with prosperity to all, will be his themes.
Are there any areas of discussion you would particularly like him to focus on or avoid during his visit?
Pope Francis is a free spirit — it [his speech] flows where it wishes — but he does it with such great compassion that people will receive his message. Peace and reconciliation will be the message he will be speaking about here. I think he knows what to avoid in this country.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.