MUMBAI, India – Just weeks ahead of a scheduled visit by Pope Francis, Cardinal Charles Bo has called on all religious leaders in Myanmar to be “extremely cautious” and to “avoid all hate speech.”
The Archbishop of Yangon is the county’s first cardinal, getting his red hat from Francis on February 14, 2015.
Since August, the Southeast Asian country has faced its worse crisis since it held multiparty elections in 2015, which Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide.
On August 25, Rohingya insurgents attacked a police outpost, killing a dozen members of the security forces. The military then began what it called “clearance operations,” and Rohingya refugees claim this involved indiscriminate murder, arson, and forced removals.
Since then, over 500,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh, which was already housing nearly a half million refugees from a series of ant-Rohingya periods dating back to the 1970s.
The Rohingya are a Muslim community living mostly in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and claim to be native to the area. There was also immigration from the neighboring areas of India, and what is now Bangladesh, during the pre-colonial and colonial era, but most families have been in the area for generations.
The population was denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by the government’s military regime in 1982, in which the Rohingya are officially considered “Bengali interlopers.”
The military’s anti-Rohingya stance remains popular with the majority-Buddhist population, even after elections.
Observers say the continuing transition to democracy has given rise to Burmese-Buddhist nationalist sentiments, which is often directed at the nation’s many minority groups, most especially the Rohingya.
There are around 450,000 Catholics in Myanmar, less than 1 percent of the total population of 53 million. Most of them are members of the country’s ethnic minorities, and also suffer discrimination and sometimes persecution.
In a message released Nov. 9, Bo said, “Enough is enough.”
The cardinal said religious leaders have a “great moral obligation” not to promote hate speech, and to be “extremely cautious” in what they say and do.
“As human beings we share a common destiny. Our tears are the same, our blood is the same. All of us must avoid all hate speech,” he said.
“Lord Buddha said every human being must feel the oneness of all life: Even a death of a leaf shall shatter a human heart. For a compassionate heart there is no ‘other.’ Everyone is part of me, and I am part of everyone,” Bo said. “This nation was nourished by such great teaching of the great leader.”
He said hate speech poisons the mind, and only helps the “merchants of death.”
“We suffered for sixty years … Hatred must give way to dreams. Hate speech frightens tourists, investors and even our friends who supported us all through these years. We need them in our journey,” the cardinal said.
He was referring to the many human rights groups across the world who supported Myanmar – also called Burma – in its struggle against its military dictatorship who are now urging the civilian government to respect the civil rights of their minorities.
“We, as a nation need to turn our attention to some of our great challenges: Poverty of the majority of Myanmar citizens, the suffering of millions of our youths – citizens – but treated as modern-day slaves by nearby countries in dangerous tasks, the unresolved conflicts in other areas, the mutilating menace of drugs in border areas,” Bo said.
“Myanmar youth, full-fledged citizens of this great nation, [are] expecting all of us to provide them quality education and employment opportunities. We need to hear their silent cries. We cannot divert our attention from issues and chronic problems of this long-suffering nation.”
Despite international criticism of Suu Kyi – who now serves as State Councilor and is the de-facto leader of the civilian government – the cardinal has staunchly defended the democracy leader since the crisis began.
In the past, he has pointed to the limits of what can be accomplished without popular support – especially in the face of opposition from the still powerful military, which controls much of the government – and has warned that marginalizing Suu Kyi puts the country’s fledgling democracy at risk.
In his Nov. 9 message, he requested that the international community “understand the multiple challenges Myanmar has been facing and the need for supporting our long journey towards peace and justice to all our people.”
In 2016, Suu Kyi asked the Kofi Annan Foundation to join the government in establishing the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
A final report was issued on August 23, 2017, just two days before the current crisis exploded.
The report made several recommendations, including: Addressing the low levels of socio-economic development in the Rakhine State, including the limited access to essential basic services; taking ambitious steps on the central questions of citizenship verification, documentation, rights and equality before the law; enhancing intercommunal dialogue and reconciliation; strengthening cooperation between local communities and the state and central government; and improving border security and bilateral relations with Bangladesh, including the pressing challenge of drug trafficking.
When presenting the recommendations, Annan said the international community “should continue to play a strong, generous and impartial role” in trying to resolve the crisis in Rakhine State.
“There are tensions between the government and international community over Rakhine-related issues. These should not become a stand-off,” the former United Nations secretary general said. “It is possible to build a bridge to mutual trust and cooperation.”
Bo pointed to the fact that over the past few months, Suu Kyi’s government has begun implementing the recommendations.
“We are glad to see every day the national verification cards issued to people in Rakhine state. Our government has promised to collaborate in the return process of refugees,” the cardinal said, also mentioning the “encouraging” dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh on repatriating refugees.
“Our government needs our appreciation and support to a very challenging process. Democratic forces need support and understanding,” he said.
“War and conflict would only further chronic poverty and suffering of all our people, citizens and others,” Bo said.
Francis is scheduled to visit the country on November 27-30. (The pope will then visit neighboring Bangladesh from November 30 – December 2.)
The pope has been an advocate for the Rohingya, mentioning them most recently on Oct. 23, during his daily Mass in the Casa Sanctae Marthae, when he spoke about people who are “hungry for money, land and wealth” creating an “idolatry that kills.”
“We only think of one case: 200,000 Rohingya children in refugee camps,” the pope said. “There are 800,000 people there, 200,000 of whom are children.”
Francis also made an appeal for them during his Angelus on August 27, when he urged for them to be given “full rights.”
Despite his strong advocacy for the Rohingya, according to the official schedule of the two-nation trip released by the Vatican on October 10, Francis is not expected to visit with representatives of the community while he is in Myanmar, nor tour the refugee camps during his visit to Bangladesh.