MUMBAI, India — Myanmar, once called Burma, is a rather opaque nation to most in the west. It is known for a few things such as the politician Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest for nearly two decades and whose plight was made famous by the MTV Generation.
Also, the recent soap opera-like story of the Knights of Malta and their change of leadership began with Myanmar putting it in international news. It was there that a charitable program run by the Knights became involved in a condom-distribution scheme and was the ostensible reason that Albrecht von Boeselager was sacked, though he was later reinstated after an intervention by Pope Francis.
Other than these isolated stories with celebrity actors, Myanmar is one of those places that often falls below the radar.
Francis moved to correct that by giving Myanmar its first red hat, which went to Cardinal Charles Maung Bo in 2015. Francis is known for going to the peripheries, and for those in the West, Myanmar certainly counts.
Bo has brought positive energy to a country that hasn’t had much presence on the world stage, and to one that is now garnering mostly negative attention for possible war crimes against its citizenry.
Francis has been praying for Myanmar of late and pointing specifically to the tragedy that has befallen its minority Muslim population. The United Nations released a report earlier this month accusing the Myanmar military and police forces of forced evictions of the Rohingya from their homes, as well as the gruesome crimes of gang-rape of the women and mass murder of the population.
Bo has recently released a statement in which he highlights the UN report and the atrocities it points out. He says the report “is heart-breaking and very profoundly disturbing.”
In his statement Bo also tries to focus on the positive changes in Myanmar.
“Over the past five years, Myanmar has experienced many positive changes and has become a more open country.” But the optimism doesn’t last long. He is forced to talk about the military’s brutality and the ugliest persecution of minority groups in the country.
Christians in Myanmar often suffer a double whammy. First, because they tend to be concentrated among ethnic minorities, especially the Kachin, they’re targeted for racial reasons. Second, because Christians are often (mis)identified with the West, they’re also seen by radical Buddhist groups as the cultural and political “other.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recently issued a report on Christian persecution in Myanmar, concluding that Christians face discrimination in employment, forced conversions, violence and desecration of churches and Christian communities.
Thousands of civilians, many of them Christian, have fled into China, prompting the Chinese authorities at one stage to deploy its military along the border, leaving 2,000 people trapped and 10,000 more to take refuge in Manhai, Myanmar, a border town, according to aid workers.
Bo calls on the government of Myanmar “to bring an end to the military offensive against civilians in Rakhine State…to bring an end to the military offensives in Kachin and northern Shan state.”
He also wants the government “to allow unhindered access to all parts of Rakhine State, Kachin State and northern Shan State, for international humanitarian aid agencies, media and human rights monitors…to work with the international community to investigate the crimes reported by the United Nations, in a truly independent way that results in justice and accountability.”
Bo doesn’t just make demands on his own government but on the whole world. He appeals directly to the international community “to be vigilant. You have welcomed positive changes. People of Myanmar seek peaceful and positive change.”
Yet, he warned, “Merchants of hatred who lived by spilling the blood of brother against brother are active again. Myanmar needs the world community to extend all support to the present democratic government with clear understanding that violence against any population is not acceptable.”
The first cardinal of Myanmar asked that people take a careful look at what’s happening in this often invisible country.
“Let the UN’s devastating report serve as a wake-up call for us all,” Bo said. “Let us work together to end violence and terror in our country, and to build a Myanmar where every man, woman and child of every race and religion born on Myanmar soil is recognized both as our fellow citizen and as our brother and sister in humanity.”
Bo acknowledges all of these things, but still he closes his statement with a wish that most would share, “Let us continue the pilgrimage to peace – not return to war.”