The Catholic Church is helping to rebuild Myanmar as it emerges from six decades of military rule and isolation through peace-building efforts and education, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon said in a recent interview with National Catholic Reporter.
The most important issue facing the country "is to see the civil war stopped ... between the (Kachin Independence Army) and the military government," Cardinal Bo said. "We'd like to see peace in the Kachin state and with the Rohingyas," a minority Muslim group named the world's most persecuted people by the United Nations.
On April 26-27, the Catholic Church, other Christian communities and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists will hold an interfaith peace conference; the cardinal said they plan to invite members of the military, armed groups and civil society. He also said churches nationwide are offering first Friday Masses, along with special fasts and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for peace in the country.
Continued ethnic conflicts mar the fledgling democracy in Myanmar, which, in March 2016, witnessed the inauguration of President U Htin Kyaw, a milestone in a transition to a mostly civilian-led government. The president is a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader as state counselor, a position above the presidency that allows her to direct the country's affairs. Suu Kyi led the opposition to the military government, was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and lived under periodic house arrest for more than 15 years until her release in 2010, when she helped usher in the subsequent victory of the National League for Democracy party.
Cardinal Bo said that, compared to five or six years ago, "there is quite a dramatic change in the country," noting that "it's just been two to three years that it's begun to open up and we could speak out freely."
The National League for Democracy is trying to refocus the country's priorities on education and health, he said, while before, the budget was mostly used for the military.
"Although there are many concerns and still problems to be addressed, I think the people feel so free to speak out and be more relaxed. They will comment on the situation and what the government is doing very freely," the cardinal said.
Yet there are stark reminders of continued ethnic and religious tensions in the country of 54.6 million. The Jan. 29 assassination U Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and an adviser to the National League for Democracy, shocked the country. He had been drafting changes to Myanmar's constitution to rein in the power of the military, which still exercises considerable control. He also was critical of the treatment and status of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar.
The military has denied any involvement in Ko Ni's killing.
There are stark reminders of continued ethnic and religious tensions in the country of 54.6 million.
Attention to the plight of the Rohingya heightened as violence escalated last fall. Suu Kyi's silence about the brutality against the Rohingya drew criticism, such as a letter in December to the U.N. Security Council signed by two dozen activists, including a dozen fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Reports of villages being burned, women raped and children and elderly people beaten and killed prompted the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on Feb. 3 to decry the " devastating cruelty" detailed in its report. It called on the Myanmar government to stop the human rights violations.
Days later, Pope Francis stepped up his earlier criticism of Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya.
"They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith," Pope Francis said. He asked those present to pray with him "for our Rohingya brothers and sisters who are being chased from Myanmar and are fleeing from one place to another because no one wants them."
By mid-February, the Myanmar government said the military crackdown had ceased and, while largely denying that abuses had occurred, said reports would be investigated.
Cardinal Bo said he and other bishops had previously been in contact with the Vatican about the Rohingya, though the pope's address in February appeared to be prompted by the U.N. report. The same day as the pope's comments, on Feb. 8, Cardinal Bo said he and the papal nuncio had a meeting with Suu Kyi about the Vatican renewing diplomatic ties with the country.
"That was very positive and will happen very soon," he said.
Cardinal Bo said he and other bishops had previously been in contact with the Vatican about the Rohingya.
During the meeting, he said, he brought up the international community's nervousness about Suu Kyi's silence on the treatment of the Rohingya. Her response, Cardinal Bo said, was that "the international communities are really exaggerating too much and just focusing on this issue. She said no doubt in some instances we admit some atrocities are happening, but she said there are people who really exaggerate."
"Things are happening there, but the genocide and ethnic cleansing, she doesn't seem to admit that. All the same, she said she is trying to investigate more the reality of things," he added.
"There are people inside and outside in the international community that sometimes might expect too much from the leaders of the new government," he said. "You can't build democracy just overnight, and there are so many issues here, and I think we have to go slowly, step by step, regarding the Rohingyas, as well as the civil war, the education field, health care. Just seeing the infrastructure of buildings coming up doesn't mean the country is already developed," he said.
Citing education as one example, Cardinal Bo said 40 percent of children drop out of primary school in some areas of the country.
"The cooperation of everybody is important for nation-building," he said, "and it's important for every citizen and for religious leaders to contribute to the nation-building."
In the next few months, the church will propose that the government return more than 80 schools confiscated in 1965. After nationalization, the quality of Myanmar's education system "went down dramatically, so we'd like to contribute to education through the schools," the cardinal said. "Before 1965, our schools were really fine and the tops in Asia. We want to help not only with local resources, but there are also religious congregations that have resource persons, and those will be able to assist us so we can manage."
The church is not waiting for the return of the properties to begin education efforts. Four Catholic primary schools will be opening in different dioceses, he said, and two secondary or high schools are already operating in the country. The schools will serve those of all faiths.
The church is also starting teacher training schools and the Myanmar Leadership Institute in conjunction with Georgetown University, Washington.