Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has called for “healing” in his homeland and for “moving forward in peace, justice and reconciliation” in a statement to his fellow citizens and the international community. In it he expressed “great compassion” at the forced exodus of thousands of Muslims (by which he means the members of the Rohingya community) and members of other ethnic groups.
“The trigger to violence and the aggressive response are lamentable,” Cardinal Bo said in his carefully worded statement. “We feel with great compassion at the flight of thousands of Muslims, Hindu, Rakhine, Mro and many others that were also scattered, especially children. This is a tragedy that should not have happened.”
In the statement, which he released on Sept. 26, the cardinal expressed his support for Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country’s democratically elected government, which came to power on April 1, 2016, after 54 years of military rule, and of her struggle to build a democratic country amid a myriad of obstacles.
"Myanmar's Cardinal Bo: This is a tragedy that should not have happened."
Aung San Suu Kyi has come under intense criticism in the Western media—as he mentions in the letter—and from the international community for not having spoken out forcefully against the military’s repression in Rakhine State. About 430,000 Rohyingas, including 230,000 children, have sought refuge in Bangladesh in recent weeks, and The New York Times reports that satellite images from Myanmar indicate that hundreds of Rohingya villages have been set on fire since late August.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has described the events in Rakhine as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”—more than 1,000 have been killed and reports of sexual assault against Rohingya women are surfacing—and human rights advocates are urging Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to rein in Myanmar military and Rakhine villagers who are supporting them. But some analysts say she has to move with the utmost political prudence if she is to keep this country on the road to democracy and not give the military a pretext to seize power.
Cardinal Bo may understand her plight better than most of her critics. According to the statement, Cardinal Bo believes she has little leverage. “To lay all blame on her, stigmatizing her response is a very counterproductive measure,” the Salesian cardinal said. She is trying to govern in a situation where the military holds the balance of power in parliament and controls the ministries of Defense and Home Affairs, as well as the country’s borders.
Aung San Suu Kyi has little leverage. She is trying to govern in a situation where the military holds the balance of power.
Describing her role as “daunting,” he recalled that in a speech on Sept. 19, her first since the violence broke three weeks earlier, Aung San Suu Kyi “expressed her concern over all forms of violence.” He “welcomed” her assurances to respect “the rights” of people “in Rakhine state” (where 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims lived before the violence) and to make possible, “the return of refugees and development of the state” (which is rich with unexploited resources.)
The cardinal emphasized that “aggressive responses,” referring to the military retaliation for August attacks on border guards that has propelled this humanitarian crisis, “without any embedded long term peaceful policies would be counter-productive.”
Cardinal Bo, the leader of the 700,000 Catholics in this majority Buddhist country of 53 million people, emphasized that “those who have lived in this country for a long time”—alluding to the Rohingya—“need justice.” In this context, he said the Kofi Annan Commission, set up by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, “took the right direction” and suggested “constructive measures,” and recalling that she has established “a working committee to implement [its] recommendations.” He hailed these steps as “positive initiatives that need the appreciation and collaboration of all stakeholders and the international community.”
In his statement, the cardinal never uses what in Myanmar is the politically charged term “Rohingya”; instead he speaks of “Muslims.” The term Rohingya is a provocation for Burmese people, the army and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, who refer to Muslims living there as “Bengalis” (undocumented Muslim villagers from Bangladesh). The government has in fact asked the international community, the church and the Holy See not to use the term Rohingya.
The government has asked the international community, the church and the Holy See not to use the term Rohingya.
To understand this objection, it is necessary to recall that Rohingya, first used in the 18th century, has its origins in the Bengali word used to denote a person from Arakan State, now called Rakhine State. Before British rule over both Bengal and Burma, there was a Muslim ruler in Bengal whose influence spread to Arakan (Rakhine) State, and the flow of people across the open borders was normal.
Beginning in 1824, the British consolidated control over Arakan State and the rest of Burma, but during World War II the state’s inhabitants were divided: The Muslims fought with the British in 1945 to expel the Japanese while the Rakhine, like other Buddhists, fought with the Japanese. After the country gained independence in 1948, militant jihadi groups among the Muslims tried to get an autonomous state or a merger with Muslim East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), a move rejected by Pakistan.
Rohingya then became a term of political mobilization. Burma’s (now Myanmar’s) military has always looked with suspicion on this Muslim population and with its 1982 Citizenship Act virtually destroyed any hope of citizenship for this minority, described today as among the most persecuted in the world. The act stipulated that only those born before the British occupation would be recognized as citizens.
Historically, the restive Rakhine State in the northwest of Myanmar has been a boiling pot of ethnic conflict, and over the past year there have been two major armed attacks here that killed many police and government officials. The government blamed the first attack in October 2016 on “extremist elements, funded and inspired from abroad.”
The second attack, on Aug. 25, killed border guards, police and civilians and led to the ferocious military backlash against the Rohingya. That second attack was carried out by a new militant group, the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formerly known as Harak-al-Yaqin (in English, “faith movement”), whose reported aim is to create “a democratic Muslim state for the Rohingya in Myanmar.”
According to the International Crisis Group, ARSA is led by Ata Ullah, a man of Rohingya descent who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, while other members of its leadership include Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia. Myanmar’s government suspects the group has close links to foreign Islamist groups, and after the August attack it castigated ARSA. as “Bengali terrorists.” Images of “Islamic terrorism’ from the recent attacks haunt the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar today and smothers compassion for the Rohingya.
While Cardinal Bo laments the brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya, he is aware of the historical complexities in Rakhine State and has argued that the crisis is no longer just a national problem but has become an international challenge involving other countries in the region—Bangladesh, Thailand, India, and Malaysia. The 53 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are concerned too, and last January their foreign ministers met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to discuss the deteriorating situation. The Rohingya question has also become a matter of concern for the Association of Southeast Asian Countries countries, and for the United Nations.
People in Myanmar are hoping Pope Francis' visit will bring healing and reconciliation.
Before he issued the letter, the cardinal told America that many people in Myanmar are hoping that when Pope Francis visits the country on Nov. 17 he will be able to promote “healing” and reconciliation, just as they saw him do in Colombia earlier this month.
He said the pope’s visit “is being welcomed as a blessing for peace and harmony” both by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which invited him, and by the military. Both are “enthusiastic” about it, he added.
He acknowledged however that it will be “a tightrope walk” for the pope. There have been mixed reactions from the country’s ethnic groups to the pope’s visit, most of whom are Christian and have been struggling for their rights for 60 years.
Many of them are disappointed that his visit is being built up in the media as a journey to solely address the question of the Rohingya, and they are not pleased that Pope Francis has spoken three times about the Rohingya but has not yet said anything about the struggles of other oppressed people in the region, such as the Kachen and Karen. They hope he will meet with representatives of the other ethnic groups, but are concerned that so far nothing has been planned. Notwithstanding all this, they are happy that Pope Francis is coming and, like the cardinal, they hope he will bring healing to the people of this fledgling democracy because, as the cardinal wrote: “All of us need to move from a wounded past towards a healing future.”