ROME – Myanmar’s lone cardinal, and perhaps the troubled nation’s most visible religious figure despite Catholicism’s minority status, has urged citizens and the government to join forces in fighting the spread of the coronavirus, voicing hope that collaboration will bring healing and unity in a divided nation.

In a statement for the July 19 Martyrs’ Day holiday in Myanmar, Burmese Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, said that in addition to violent clashes still happening following a Feb. 1 military coup, the coronavirus pandemic “is waging a war against our people with a ferocity unknown to our people.”

“Thousands are infected, hundreds are buried unwept and unsung, hurriedly buried in crowded cemeteries. Day and night our people wait for oxygen in crowded streets,” he said, noting that the general national sentiment is one of “sorrow.”

According to Myanmar’s health ministry, the current number of COVID-related deaths in a 24-hour period as of Sunday stood at 231, down from an all-time high of 233 on Saturday. However, doctors and medical experts say the daily death count is likely much higher, and crematoriums are overloaded.

With a weakened healthcare system following the Feb. 1 coup in which Myanmar’s military ousted democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is struggling to get ahead of its third wave of the coronavirus.

In this month alone the death toll in Myanmar has risen 50 percent, claiming the lives of over 2,000 people, with an uptick in the number of cases as the dangerous Delta variant spreads.

With numerous healthcare workers participating in a civil disobedience movement opposing the military junta, COVID testing, vaccinations, and preventative measures have all been stalled, and instead of turning to the government, citizens are taking matters into their own hands, with some banding together to try to import oxygen cylinders from neighboring Thailand.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing issued an appeal for volunteers and for national cooperation during a coronavirus emergency meeting. In comments broadcast on state television Sunday, he said “Some people do not dare to volunteer because of intimidation. Some people want to join but they have different reasons and difficulties. As I said before, I welcome them. Cooperation is required.”

In his statement, Bo noted now July 19 marked the national Martyrs’ Day holiday, which is observed annually to commemorate several slain independence heroes, including General Aung San, the father of Myanmar’s detained democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently undergoing trial for a variety of charges that could send her to prison for decades.

Referring to the leaders who lost their lives in the fight for Burmese independence, Bo said “Their sacrifice in blood was shed to make this country a great country.”

“As COVID spirals out of control, inflicting fear, anxiety, and death, the only way we can pay homage to the Martyrs’ sacrifice is to come together as one nation against the pandemic,” he said, adding, “This is not the time for inflicting wounds. This is the time to heal.”

To mark the holiday, anti-coup protesters held demonstrations throughout the country to honor their fallen heroes, with drivers in Yangon honking their horns at 10:37a.m., a tradition marking the time the independence leaders were killed.

Military authorities in Yangon held a subdued and tightly controlled ceremony at a mausoleum dedicated to General Aung San, was assassinated alongside members of his cabinet on July 19, 1947, despite the current prosecution of Aung San’s daughter, Suu Kyi.

In Monywa, which sits to the west of the Burmese city of Mandalay, anti-junta demonstrators held a march for the holiday, chanting, “Martyrs never die. We are going to wash our feet with the blood of war dogs,” in reference to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military armed forces.

Since the Feb. 1 coup began, security forces have killed at least 914 people. Some 6,770 people have been arrested, 5,277 people have been detained or sentenced, and around 1,963 others are currently wanted by security forces, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group.

On Friday, the United Nations’ child rights committee reported that they had received “credible information” that 75 children had been killed and approximately 1,000 arrested since the coup began.

In addition to the deaths and arrests, many people remain displaced amid fighting between the Tatmadaw and rebel groups in the country’s eastern and western states, with many taking refuge in the jungle, where humanitarian aid is hard to reach and, in some cases, has been blocked by the military.

In his statement, Bo said Myanmar “has seen too many tears recently,” and begged all parties to “Please, please stop all the conflicts.”

“The only war we need to wage is against the lethal invisible virus, which proved to be invincible even to superpowers of the world,” he said, adding, “Can we afford war and conflict and displacement now? It is time to raise an army of volunteers, armed with medical kits to reach out to our much suffering people.”

Noting how citizens banded together to fight the country’s first two waves of the coronavirus, Bo said the “heroism” of volunteers and frontline workers “moved us to tears,” saying, “It is time to come together to celebrate our unity in service. We are capable of doing it again.”

Bo asked national authorities in Myanmar to facilitate the security of healthcare workers and youth “to participate in an existential threat to us as a nation.”

“United we save lives; divided we will bury thousands. History will be the harshest judge if we fail in compassion,” he said, and urged the people to come together.

“We have faced many challenges as people and as a nation. We will face this challenge together. Maybe this is a call for all of us to forge a fellowship that will usher in the ultimate peace and reconciliation,” he said, adding, “We can defeat this enemy together.”

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