ROME – One year after a military coup overthrew Myanmar’s democratic leadership, the nation’s outspoken top Catholic prelate has called for dialogue and an end to violence but cast doubt on the future of democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

Speaking to Crux, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon said the armed conflict that has bloodied Myanmar for the past year has “brought our country to its knees.”

On Feb. 1 last year Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, led a coup overthrowing the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 76, the country’s democratic leader, on charges of election fraud.

Aung San Suu Kyi – who was put on trial and sentenced to six years in prison for incitement against the military, breaching coronavirus restrictions, and breaking a telecommunications law – faces a swath of other charges, including corruption and bribery, that could land her 150 years in prison.

In the wake of last year’s coup, “People’s Defense Forces” (PDF) resisting military control have sprung up across the country and have clashed with government forces in a conflict that has turned into a bloody standoff with both sides refusing to back down.

According to the United Nations’ human rights office, at least 1,500 people are known to have been killed so far in the armed resistance, with potentially thousands more killed in armed conflict that are still unaccounted for. At least 11,787 have been unlawfully detained, with some 8,792 remaining in custody.

In his comments to Crux, Bo said he is encouraging both sides to dialogue, but “now there is painful distaste for talks” and the military and resistance forces are in a “stalemate.”

In terms of democracy’s future in Myanmar, Bo said the military has promised a “‘disciplined democracy,’ which clearly implies certain restrictions.”

“There are no reasons for optimism in Myanmar at present. But hope is another matter,” he said, adding, “Democracy is the undying fire in the hearts of the people. No stakeholder in Myanmar can run this nation for long if they deny that.”

Bo also reflected on the role of young people in the resistance, the advocacy of Pope Francis for peace in the country, and the role of the Church as bloodshed continues.

Please read below for Crux’s full interview with Cardinal Charles Bo:

Crux: It’s been one year since the military coup began. Since then, the situation has quickly deteriorated. Did you expect the situation would become so violent and so drastic?

Bo: As the date approached for swearing in the newly elected government there were rumours. At Christmas I normally invited both the democratic leader and the Commander in Chief for a cordial meeting. For Christmas 2020, only the Commander in Chief came. I was deeply disappointed that I could not bring them together.

The people’s reaction to the February 1 action of the military was massive. In the beginning it was non-violent. I always feared that bloodshed would ensue. Sadly, it happened. Brutal violence took over. As I said in the post-Christmas message, the whole Myanmar is now a “war zone”. Embittered youth seek solutions through armed response. The army is historically known for a no mercy approach. We have buried more than a thousand people in this war of no victory. We need to arrest this deadly spiral. As of now, we agree with your assessment: Yes, it is violent and drastic.

The reason given for the coup was related to allegations of election fraud. Do you think the military is open to holding new democratic elections if Aung San Suu Kyi is not among the candidates, or is this a complete regression to previous times? In other words, is democracy completely lost in Myanmar, or do you think there is still hope?

I am a firm believer in dialogue. Did we need such response to allegations of election fraud?  Problems created by human beings can only be solved by human beings, not by guns. So much violence and so much blood letting could have been avoided through dialogue. Sadly, it is not happening.

About future elections: At first the Commander in Chief promised elections within a year. Then it was extended to 2023. But they promise ‘disciplined democracy’ which clearly implies certain restrictions. Among the thousands regarded as enemies who are incarcerated there are at least five hundred NLD [National League for Democracy] members. They were the part of democracy till recently. There are no reasons for optimism in Myanmar at present. But hope is another matter. Democracy is the undying fire in the hearts of the people. No stakeholder in Myanmar can run this nation for long if they deny that.

It is true that Myanmar’s military was previously in control for many years, but now the people have tasted democracy, albeit briefly. Do you think the military is surprised by the level of resistance they’ve faced in the wake of the coup, especially from young people?

Yes and no. In many ethnic areas the [military’s] control was and is contested. Even during the democratic interlude, the military retained control, through the constitution they themselves had written. The fact that they already held that control makes it strange why they launched this coup which has brought our country to its knees.

The army faces a new generation that is sailing through the social media cosmos. It cannot be controlled and forced back to dark days. The people tasted a limited form of democracy in those five years. They were exposed to values such as freedom of speech, critical education, the right of free assembly, and they could also see that Myanmar has much to offer Asia and the world.

Our young people are our greatest resources, they struggle not only for democracy but for the opportunities that come with that. They see how opportunities pulled millions out of misery in other Southeast Asian countries and, for example, South Korea. They will not easily be subdued. The army knows this. It is why the struggle reaches to every corner of the country.

Clearly the situation at its current status is not sustainable. You have had conversations with some of the military leaders, and I’m sure you have also met with members of the resistance. Do you perceive there to be an openness on either side to resolving the conflict in a peaceful way, to having a dialogue? Or is everyone set on ‘digging in their heels’?

There are two governments, one that claims legitimacy, one in the shadows. There are two armies, one well equipped and battled hardened, the other in the shadows full of anger and commitment but without proper command or weapons. So, this is going to be painful stalemate with disastrous results for the ordinary people. So, we urge for dialogue to both the groups. Now there is painful distaste for talks.

The time for talks will come. This is what I and other religious leaders have tried to prepare for. It is why I have tried to keep open the channels for dialogue with everyone. But neither side appears ready to compromise now. We are at a stalemate. Violence cannot be arbiter of this nation’s destiny. Its time is over.

What do you think it would take for all sides to put down their weapons?

No one will put down their weapons easily. The Tatmadaw are not the types to give in. But a good leader knows when to sue for peace, when the cost is too high. All the wars that the Myanmar army waged are against its own people. After 70 years there is no clear victory. This realization should strike home to the army as soon as possible. This nation cannot stay on a permanent conflict mode. The army has many motives in waging the war; economic interests are the major ones. They need to understand a free and open economy gives more gain for all.

Sadly, the enablers of this conflict are from outside, those with geostrategic interests and those who flourish through arms industry. Our curse is our resources. Russia makes profit from the sale of weapons and gains a foothold in Asia. Great nations like China and even Japan, which should want stability in the region, can goad the army into talks, a durable peace is possible. Yet even when peace comes, this nation will take years to heal. The world needs to engage all the stakeholders, make them part of the solution. If this realization is missing, we are riding a long-haul turbulence.

Pope Francis many times has expressed his closeness to Myanmar and has prayed for peace to prevail, including with his special Mass for Myanmar last year. What has his support meant to the people of Myanmar? Has his advocacy had any direct impact on the situation?

The pope’s witness is poignant. His love for this country was shown when he chose this small country for his pilgrimage of peace. After this conflict broke out, the pope has prayed at least ten times in public for Myanmar. Each time his words are encouraging. In the special Mass for Myanmar, he spoke of Myanmar’s ‘dramatic and painful’ experiences of ‘violence, conflict and repression.’ His words continue to be balm of healing to our people.

His words matter since they give visibility to the wounds of Myanmar. Of course, he was principally speaking to encourage the Christian minority in Myanmar. But he is a significant world leader with a moral voice. Despite all risks, during his visit to Myanmar he met all stakeholders here, including the army leader. The Pope urged all to strive for peace.

Although the Commander in Chief has visited many religious leaders, myself included, we do not yet see the results of these conversations. Christians along with all others continue to suffer, thousands are displaced, churches continue to be attacked. We wish to see a positive move towards de-escalating conflict.

Many religious in Myanmar have taken bold actions, standing in front of tanks and soldiers to prevent further civilian bloodshed. Given the ongoing violence, the increasing death toll, and the displacement of so many, what should the Church’s role be? How can it best help the people and contribute to peace at this time?

The first role of priests and religious is to accompany the people. The Church is more than the consecrated persons, and therefore we can work at many levels, such as seeking dialogue and attempting to bring humanitarian assistance to the afflicted. In many areas the practical help is being blocked. This is one of the matters I raised with the military leaders. My requests were heard, promises were made, but we are waiting for the outcome. We continue our efforts along with all religious leaders.

When all others fled, like INGOs, the Church stayed with the people despite huge risks to life. Its presence offers a measure of security to the beleaguered population. The Church’s mission is first of all to pastorally accompany and listen to our people. Second, we seek to serve one another, to be of help at times of grief or of need. Third, we must defend the rights and human dignity of all people. In all this the Church is highly challenged since it is also wounded in different ways. I have indicated in my encouragement to all that this wounded Church needs to be the healer. We live with this challenge as a Church in Myanmar.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen