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A knife in the back of freedom in Myanmar and Hong Kong

Amid the perplexing prudence and silence of too many, these beloved brothers and sisters of ours will go through suffering and meet defeat

A knife in the back of freedom in Myanmar and Hong Kong

Pro-military supporters, including one (left) brandishing a knife, stand over a resident after attacking him during a rally in Yangon on Feb. 25 following weeks of mass demonstrations against Myanmar’s military coup. (Photo: AFP)

The recent images of popular resistance to the military coup in Myanmar have a great evocative power. They make me think of Hong Kong and its sad fate.

In the last few days, 47 people peacefully committed to the freedom and democracy of Hong Kong have gone on trial for subversion. The accusations are an obvious pretext, and the accused are humiliated with interminable court hearings designed to send shivers of fear to the people.

The suppression of the Hong Kong popular movement, the arrest of democratic parliamentarians, the cancellation of elections and the use of the pandemic to impose liberticidal laws in the name of national security were like a signal: it can be done. The world does not look.

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military, having secured the support of neighboring China, suspended the elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party last November and imposed martial law for the third time in recent history.

A country that was moving toward a more democratic future, not without difficulty, is now turning back. Many young people — desperate — are ready to die rather than have their lives ruled by the military.

The army in Myanmar is something different from those of other countries: it is a huge, omnipresent, omnipotent and very rich organization. Its barracks are gigantic properties, cities within cities, located in city centers and border areas, from which they control all border issues, migration and trafficking, legal or not. How was it possible for critics of the previous civilian government to imagine that it would be easy to bring the functions of the army back into the context of democratic governance?

Cruel military leaders send out soldiers night and day to snatch opponents from their homes. In the meantime, they have released more than 20,000 prisoners to vacate jails for peaceful demonstrators. Released common criminals are incited and paid to cause violence and disorder, destroy or set houses on fire. They are allowed even to wound and kill with long sharp knives or stones and slings. I have seen terrible photos that testify to these crimes. Dozens of people have been killed.

Meanwhile, detained civilian leader Suu Kyi is accused of the very serious crime of possessing two-way radios.

PIME missionaries have been evangelizing in Myanmar since 1868, including some of our best missionaries: Felice Tantardini, Blessed Clemente Vismara, Alfredo Cremonesi, Paolo Manna and Blessed Mario Vergara, the latter beatified with his catechist Isidoro Ngei Ko Lat. Since 2018, I have been going to Taunggyi, capital of Shan state, every year to teach in the training program of diocesan seminaries. A wonderful country, you love it as you know it.

Myanmar is a land of Buddhist faith, with many monks on the front line to defend freedom. Catholics march next to them in street protests. The photos of faithful, nuns and priests marching with rosaries and placards in their hands recall similar participation in popular protests in Manila in 1986, Seoul in 1987 and Hong Kong in 1989, 2003, 2014, 2019 and 2020.

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A reminder of Tiananmen Square

The photo (above) of nun Ann Rosa Nu Tawng of the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier kneeling on Feb. 28 before armed policemen in Myitkyina, Kachin state, speaks for itself. It recalls the famous snapshot of the unknown Tank Man who, on June 5, 1989, stopped a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in Chinese capital Beijing.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli tutti (All Brothers) praises popular movements as capable of producing the political conversion that humanity needs. But these movements already exist, not only in pontifical documents but in real life. I have seen them in place in Hong Kong and Myanmar — peaceful movements of people promoting freedom and participation in building the social community.

It is disconcerting that the dignity of these movements is not recognized. Yet Catholics have a leading role. Think of Sister Ann Rosa or young Agnes Chow, now in prison in Hong Kong. They took their Christian vocation seriously: we are daughters and sons of God, baptized in the image of Christ, the author of freedom.

The courage and willingness to give their lives by the people of Myanmar, including courageous brothers and sisters in faith, and likewise of Hong Kong's democratic activists, are a testament to the preeminence of human dignity and conscience over political and military oppression and violence. Unfortunately, as we know, amid the perplexing prudence and silence of too many, these beloved brothers and sisters of ours will go through suffering and meet defeat.

Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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