When Myanmar’s generals overthrew the country’s elected government on Monday, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo was on a pastoral visit to the northern state of Kachin.
This meant Auxiliary Bishop John Saw Yaw Han of Yangon gave the initial Church response to the crisis, which included the arrest of most of the elected members of the National League for Democracy, including its leader and Myanmar’s “State Counsellor,” Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Speaking to Fides the bishop called on church officials to “control the people who enter the church complex,” not to issue “individual statements” about the coup, and to “pray intensely for peace in Myanmar.”
Christians make up about 6 percent of the population of the Buddhist-majority country, with Catholics accounting for 750,000 people out of a total population of 53 million. Most of the Christians belong to ethnic minorities, many of which have been involved in armed insurgencies against the Burmese-dominated central government.
So it is not surprising that Saw Yaw Han’s statement didn’t directly condemn the military – the Church has little political clout with the army chiefs.
However, when the auxiliary bishop’s boss returned to Yangon, he didn’t follow the same script.
Bo condemned the coup in a Feb. 3 message, saying the military had “shocked the world and the people of Myanmar.” He called for the release of the arrested political leaders and gave special praise to Suu Kyi.
The 72-year-old cardinal was not tweaking the nose of the generals. Bo is too pragmatic for empty gestures.
In his message, he praised the army’s role in handing over power to an elected government, and mildly slapped the hand of Suu Kyi – who has often been criticized for her authoritarian manner since assuming power – for not engaging in dialogue with the military, who still held many of the levers of power in the country.
He also called on the international community to avoid “sanctions and condemnations,” noting that historically they have brought few results, rather they closed doors and shut out dialogue.
“These hard measures have proved a great blessing to those superpowers that eye our resources,” Bo said.
When Bo mentions “those superpowers,” his eyes were most likely turned to China, who has been extracting mineral wealth from Myanmar for decades. The cardinal was warning the West that if it acted rashly, the generals would return to the embrace of Beijing.
Bo knows he has to tread carefully. Although a cardinal’s red hat might make the generals pause before arresting the prelate, it wouldn’t make too many waves in the Buddhist country.
He is defending democracy, without burning bridges with the generals.
Bo knows that even if the coup fails – and it does seem reminiscent of the failed last gasp effort of the Soviet military to halt Mikhail Gorbachev reforms in 1991 – the army is not going away. It is not a popular view in the arena of world opinion, but the cardinal is insisting that the civilian government work with the military, and not fight against it.
Over the past few years, Bo has also strongly objected to the criticism lodged against Suu Kyi after Myanmar’s 2017 offensive against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Even some of the Suu Kyi closest friends in the West condemned the State Counsellor over her defense of the military’s actions.
Although the cardinal was often the only voice coming from within Myanmar calling for the respect of human rights in Rakhine, he has avoided using the term “Rohingya” – to which the Myanmar authorities object – and hasn’t waded too deeply into the political questions surrounding the status of the Rohingya in the country.
Throughout the crisis, he has insisted that attacks on Suu Kyi were only strengthening the military’s hand, and that the democracy leader had to tow the army’s line on the Rohingya, both to avoid antagonizing the generals, and because the offensive was hugely popular with the Burmese majority in the country.
Although some may complain about the cardinal’s realpolitik, Monday’s events proved how prescient he was.
Bo is in a unique position during the coup.
A Catholic cardinal and president of the Federation of Asian Catholic Bishops’ Conferences, he is a phone call away from Pope Francis, and thus carries more weight than Myanmar’s small Catholic population would otherwise warrant. From an ethnic Burmese background, the cardinal is a natural intermediator between the central government and its ethnic minorities, who are predominantly Christian.
Most importantly, he is seen as non-aligned to any of Myanmar’s various political factions.
Bo is now offering the army a path out of the crisis without losing too much face; it remains to be seen if the generals will grasp it.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome