Cardinal Charles Bo has warned Myanmar against extremism, and called on “allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ war crimes, and crimes against humanity” to be “fully and independently” investigated.
Bo is the Archbishop of Yangon, and the country’s first cardinal.
The country, formerly known as Burma, held its first free elections in decades in 2015, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy taking the majority of seats. The country’s military still wields a large amount of power, and is considered to hold a veto over any government decision.
Myanmar still suffers from a number of ethnic insurgencies, and the Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state have undergone what the United Nations have termed a “campaign of terror.”
Bo said the “sad and the pestering suffering” of the people in Rakhine has greatly concerned him, and added that Pope Francis has also raised his voice on behalf of the Rohingyas.
Francis has expressed his concern for them spontaneously on several occasions, most recently last February, when he said “they have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith.”
In his letter on Monday, Bo noted the progress the country has made in the last few years, but was forthright about the challenges it still faced.
“This nation has a great potential to provide a great future to her sons and daughters,” the cardinal wrote in his letter.
“But millions are now in poverty, millions in unsafe migration, forced into modern forms of slavery. Conflicts and displacements,” he said.
“Democracy is not perfect but we are eager that extreme positions and words do not force a relapse into days when no one had any rights,” the cardinal continued. “Myanmar cannot live through another such spell.”
Although there was great hope when Suu Kyi’s party won the elections, there are concerns the League for Democracy is not doing enough to secure the rights of the population.
Article 66D of the Telecommunications Law, which covers online defamation, was used only seven times by the military regime. Over 35 people have been charged under the law since the League for Democracy took power.
The regime has downplayed the negative stories about the Rohingyas crackdown, and Suu Kyi herself has claimed war crimes are not taking place, even telling the BBC “it’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities.”
Rohingyas have faced persecution for decades, and were denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by the government’s military regime in 1982, in which the Rohingyas are officially considered “Bengali interlopers.”
Bo has been one of the few figures within Myanmar to risk the government’s ire by speaking up for the rights of the Rohingya minority.
In his letter, the cardinal mentioned his many statements against religious extremism, the plight of internally displaced persons, and the treatment of minorities, including his opposition to anti-minority laws.
“We continue to raise our voice on behalf of [the Rohingyas]. When as boat people they were perishing in the seas, I have pointed out the inhuman root causes of this tragedy,” Bo said.
“At the UN in March 2016 and again in the British Parliament in May 2016 I described the horrific persecution of ‘Rohingyas’ as an appalling scar on the conscience of my country” – he continued – “Recently with the report of the UN on the treatment of ‘Rohingyas’ we have appealed to the government to ‘Let the devastating report serve as a wake up call for all.’”
Bo said it was for legal scholars and human rights experts to determine how to categorize egregious human rights violations in Myanmar, but gave a reminder that people should be “careful in use of terms,” before reiterating his call for the government of Myanmar and the international community to investigate the crimes which have been reported by the United Nations “in a truly independent way that results in justice and accountability.”
The cardinal also called on the government of Myanmar to move away from “positions that are not conducive to peace and its good name in the international community,” but also called on the supporters of the Rohingyas to “move forward maximizing peace based on justice at every opportunity.”
Bo called for an end to “intransigent positions” and an “openness to engage all parties” as the path forward, noting that “changes are happening” in Myanmar, even if not as fast as the international community and human rights groups would like.
“Peace conferences are held where all stakeholders sit for dialogue. Inter-religious peace gatherings are gaining strength, sidelining the extremist elements,” he points out.
Bo calls these steps “encouraging signs,” and notes that “peace is possible – peace is the only way.”