MUMBAI, India – Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015 and who recently hosted the pontiff during a visit to his country, obviously has gotten the memo that reaching out to the peripheries is the order of the day in the Francis era.
Bo recently visited Myitkyina, a city of about 300,000 people that’s the capital of Myanmar’s contested Kachin State almost 1,000 miles away from the capital city of Yangon where he resides – officially to take part in a retreat, but also to bring aid and comfort to the victims of war and chronic economic injustice in one of the most isolated spots of the world.
Among other things, Bo visited the people of the Tanphre village, also known as Myitsone, site of a major hydroelectric dam project that’s currently suspended. The initiative is deeply controversial in Myanmar, since it’s projected to have several environmental impacts and is also located in an area considered the cradle of Burmese civilization.
The dam is also seen popularly as a symbol of expanding Chinese influence in the country, since most Burmese in the area aren’t ever hooked up to the power grid and the electricity generated is expected to flow primarily into China.
Having made his visit, Bo emerged determined to speak out in opposition to the project.
“Meeting with the local people of Tanphre (Myitsone) was moving, and some were crying,” he told Crux. “The project must stop by all means. The government could allow the Chinese other projects in other places in Myanmar, but not this dam,” he said.
“If anything occurs, it will damage not only the Kachin State but the entire nation,” Bo said, adding that we need “just one voice … to stop.”
Bo also made time to visit three camps for internally displaced persons in Kachin State, where an internal conflict between the government and the insurgent Kachin Independence Army has been raging off and on since 2011. In addition to allegations of the use of landmines and child soldiers, as well as the practice of systematic rape and torture, by both sides, the fighting has driven an estimated 100,000 people from their homes.
Some of the violence in Kachin State has also been styled by external watchdog groups as a form of anti-Christian persecution, since the Burmese government in Yangon is allied with Buddhist nationalist movements while the majority of the people in Kachin are Christian.
Bo said that whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflict, the people residing in IDP camps are suffering.
“It’s already their seventh year” in the camps, he said. “Their big concern is how long they have to wait to return to their villages.”
As on the dam project, here too Bo appeared to suggest he intends to act as a tribune for people at the peripheries.
“They’re tired of war, and they want peace by all means,” Bo said. “Let the national military show signs of trust, and they’ll be for peace and willing to sign a cease-fire.”
Overall, Bo said his experience in Kachin State was positive.
“The welcome of the crowd along with Bishop Francis Daw Tang and the priests and religious sisters and brothers, and the people, was very impressive,” he said.