MUMBAI, India – Myanmar’s Catholic cardinal is urging voters to look for integrity, not just intelligence, when voting on the country’s Nov. 8 general election.

The vote will decide 1,171 seats in the national, state and regional assemblies in the country, and is seen as vital to securing Myanmar’s democratic credentials.

The 2015 vote ended decades of military rule, and placed longtime democracy advocate and Nobel laurate Aung San Suu Kyi as the country’s “State Counselor” – the de facto head of state, since Suu Kyi was barred by the military-written constitution from becoming president.

Although Suu Kyi’s victory was hailed at the time, she has come under fire during her term for doing little to stop the army’s violent campaign against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. Since 2017, Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.

In addition, many other internal conflicts plague the country, often pitting the Buddhist Burmese majority against ethnic minorities belonging to other faiths, including Christianity.

Suu Kyi’s supporters point to the fact that the current constitution limits her sway over the country’s military, which still has its fingers on the levers of power in the country.

“These are challenging times,” Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon wrote in a Sep. 1 pastoral letter calling on the people of the nation to vote in the election.

“In this historic moment, I address each one of you, not as a politician but as a religious person, as your own brother desiring only the common good and the welfare of the whole community of Myanmar,” he said.

“To vote is a birthright. Voting is not only a right but a sacred duty. This is part of our long pilgrimage to democracy. I urge everyone to assure that your name is in the voters’ list and you are there in the voting booth on that Election Day. Active participation of citizens is essential in any democracy,” the cardinal continued.

Bo said the “flowering of robust democracy is the only hope for curing this nation, bleeding with fraternal conflict,” and creating a durable peace.

“As sons and daughters of this great golden nation, we deserve peace. Armed response has painfully killed thousands, made thousands [into] refugees and IDPs. This dark era needs to end. Nobody has won a war in this country. Peace is possible, peace is the only way. Our great religions promote the principle of peace, I urge you, vote for peace,” the cardinal continued.

In his message, Bo did not give advice on who to vote for, but did point to the example of General Aung San, the man considered the father of the country; and also the father of Suu Kyi.

The cardinal noted the general – assassinated in 1947 – “lived and died for the dream of a true political and economic federalism.”

“Vote for those who support General Aung San’s dream. Let there be a new dawn of peace and prosperity,” Bo said.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is the major proponent of transforming Myanmar into a federal republic, a project opposed by the military.

In his pastoral letter, Bo said democracy was a way of “empowering the voiceless.”

“Our people are a graceful people, celebrated for their hospitality and love by the world. For too long our people have lived without articulation. Democracy empowers the weak and the vulnerable. For the real participation of the poor in power, elections are vital. Let not poverty deter us from election participation. Opt for parties that opt for the welfare of the poor,” the cardinal said.

Bo also called for economic and environmental justice in a country long exploited by foreign powers for its natural resources.

China has long been accused of using Myanmar’s diplomatic isolation in the 1990’s and 2000’s to secure sweetheart deals in the mining and energy sectors of the country. Locals were often displaced by Chinese-funded mineral extraction and dam projects in the country.

Many observers note that the generals’ move towards democracy was in part spurred by discomfort with the country’s reliance on its powerful neighbor – however, Chinese money is still a factor in Myanmar politics.

“All religions have affirmed that there is no peace without justice. Peace in this bleeding nation will not arrive until the resources of this country are kept at the service of all, especially for the poor and marginal communities. Judge your candidates, avoid those looters and cronies who ravaged all our resources and made us poor. Thieves cannot represent us,” the cardinal said.

“Myanmar welcomes good-intentioned foreign investments that build a sustainable future for our people. Unfortunately, hordes of foreign elements in collusion with local cronies, have declared Myanmar as the last frontier for effortless loot. Many of these unpatriotic persons are competing in this election. Identify them. They are not to be part of any democracy,” he added.

Bo also said that community and care for the common good “are the pivots on which a democracy marches on,” and warned against the power of fake news spread by social media.

“Communal hatred and scapegoating are becoming potent vote bank tools. The world community expressed its horror at the manipulations by merchants of hatred in Myanmar, masquerading as protectors of religion and race, abetted by Facebook. These people are in collusion with the looters of our nation, not the guardians. Identify them and consign them to the garbage of history,” he said.

“Look for integrity not only intelligence,” Bo urged the nation’s voters. “Myanmar needs more leaders with intelligence but who are animated by a sense of servant leadership, embedding great values of honesty, integrity, accountability and transparency. Power comes from service. Myanmar has had enough strong leaders. It is time for servant leaders.”