BANGKOK, Thailand – As Pope Francis prepares for his visit to the Southeast-Asian country of Myanmar in November, a Catholic leader in neighboring Thailand paints a troubling picture of the millions of displaced migrants and refugees from the country seeking a better life.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, “is a rapidly growing church,” Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovitvanit of Bangkok told Crux in an interview.
After emerging from a military dictatorship, Myanmar survived a series of natural disasters, a crippled economy and lately it has been under international scrutiny since the government has been accused of denying the rights of the Muslim-minority Rohingya population, faced with rising levels of persecution, including rapes and extra-judicial killings.
Francis has often spoken about the Rohingya plight during public and religious events. On February 8, the pontiff asked the pilgrims gathered for his general audience to pray with him “for our brother and sister Rohingya. They were driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another and no one wants them.”
An unprecedented number of Burmese people started leaving their country around 2011. Approximately 2 million migrants moved to Thailand attracted to its growing economy and proximity.
Currently just short of 1 percent of its almost 53 million inhabitants are Catholic, but the cardinal said that the small churches in Bangkok are overflowing with faithful from the nearby country.
Not long ago Kovitvanit learned that up to 300 Burmese Catholics who migrated in search of better jobs in Bangkok fill the pews during afternoon Mass in a church not far from the seat of the archdiocese.
“We don’t have the real numbers and they are not stable,” the cardinal said pointing to the difficulty of tracking and offering pastoral care to the ever moving Burmese community. The Thai government estimates that between two and three million immigrants from Myanmar are currently living in Thailand fleeing persecution and in search of work opportunities.
Kovitvanit, the son of Chinese immigrants who fled the Mao Tse-tung dictatorship in search of a better life in Thailand, has only recently returned from a meeting with the Focolare Movement in Myanmar, where he tried to discuss future plans to better cater to the growing ranks of Burmese migrants in Thailand.
Most of them settle in the northern region of Thailand, near the city of Chiang Mai, where they take on low skill jobs such as construction work and farming.
There are three refugee camps dispersed around the northern area, the most secluded one counts up to 10,000 people, while the largest can welcome 60,000 refugees. In collaboration with the NGOs who operate in the territory, Kovitvanit has worked to open 14 learning centers for Burmese children, each one catering to up to 400 students.
“Many of these people are Muslim. And the teachers are also Muslim,” the cardinal said. “They are being helped by the Church. If we help these children and these kids they might have a chance of getting a job and become self sufficient in the future.”
Kovitvanit said that there are still many difficulties especially concerning the immigration policies in Thailand, which has alternated leniency with xenophobia in the past few years. “Almost all citizens of Myanmar are illegal,” he said, with the only exception being those living in the refugee camps and waiting for their visas.
The local government looks wearily at the work being done by the Church with Burmese migrants, fearing that Catholics might lobby to offer them citizenship. “I told the local governor: ‘Let our small Church offer a small help’,” Kovitvanit said.
The government allowed the Church to continue teaching Burmese children but provides no funding for the schools. Church authorities in Thailand must learn to walk the line carefully in order to continue their work without losing the goodwill of the government.
“We think about the future,” Kovitvanit said. “We do what we can, without doing things that might create an obstacle to helping these poor people.”
In the future, the cardinal hopes to transform the learning centers into boarding schools, since many parents are not able to come pick their children up due to the long work hours and the scarcity of means to support them.
Even in the area near Bangkok, where thousands of Burmese flock to work, many parents struggle to find what to do with their children during the day. The Archdiocese of Bangkok decided to step in and create a school in order to raise literacy levels and help Burmese parents.
“We rented a four-story public housing building to keep the children while their parents are working,” Kovitvanit said, laughingly adding that the government “took all the credit and says that it was all work done by them.
“But it’s all fine, we continue on with our work.”
Several priests from Myanmar have moved to Thailand to offer pastoral care to the many Catholics fleeing the country. “But many more migrants are coming,” the cardinal said. “I spoke to the bishop in Myanmar to look for possibilities to offer more pastoral care.”
The seat of the Archdiocese of Bangkok looks like a small village. Its church, rectory, school and seminary all face the same rectangular square creating an insulated atmosphere. The Catholic oasis seems severed from the bustling, loud and pepper scented streets of Bangkok.
There are only about 150,000 Thai Catholics in Bangkok, without counting the migrant workers from Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. “We are in a Buddhist majority country, us Catholics don’t even make it to 1 percent,” Kovitvanit said.
The cardinal has worked in religious formation for 16 years. He studied philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University until 1976, when he was ordained as priest. Later he went to the Gregorian University in Rome in 1982, where he specialized in spirituality.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Bishop of Nakhon Sawan, the largest diocese in Thailand extending 36,119 square miles. Two years later he was named Archbishop of Bangkok.
Kovitvanit was alone in the rectory on January 15, 2013, when the phone rang to tell him that he had been appointed to be a new cardinal of Bangkok by Francis.
At first Kovitvanit did not believe it and asked well-wishers not to spread the news in order to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. “I said goodbye to everyone. I walked into the chapel in front of the study and prayed. The phone kept ringing but I didn’t answer.”
The cardinal admits that he has not been the only one to be blindsided by the pope’s decisions. “It would seem like this pope,” Kovitvanit said, “has a custom of not informing who he wants to appoint.”
The cardinal also applauded the pope’s apparent intention to make representation within the Church the most universal possible. “When Pope Francis arrived, with this character of simplicity, he grabbed everybody’s hearts and brought a change in the behaviors in the Church. This for me is a beautiful thing.”
Like many others, the clergy in Bangkok tried to adapt to the Francis style of doing things, especially his predilection for poverty and humility. “We did not think that he would go so far…” Kovitvanit said, his cheeks shaking with laughter, and quickly added, “But it is a good thing!”
“We must avoid excess,” he said. “That way we can be closer to the people.”
The pope’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium served as a blueprint for the 2015 Thai Bishops’ Conference which issued a document titled “Live and Testify,” pointing to the importance of living one’s faith first and foremost with one’s own life.
On several occasions Kovitvanit tried to convince Francis to come and visit Thailand, explaining that the Bangkok airport is an important stopping point to visit many other Asian countries. “He liked this joke but did not say anything,” the cardinal recalls.
“But I understand. Since his very first trip Pope Francis has gone to places where he is needed, where there is suffering,” he continued. “There are many countries that need the pope, but if he were to come here he would do so much good.”
The last pope to visit Thailand was John Paul II in 1984, who met with the now-deceased king Bhumibol Adulyadej. The cardinal is convinced that despite its small numbers, the Thai Catholic community and government would warmly welcome Francis.
“We still have so much to do,” Kovitvanit said. “All this doesn’t mean we have done everything that needs to be done. It’s an ongoing work.”