A papal odyssey to the heart of Asia

If Jesus were alive today, there is little doubt people of Myanmar and Bangladesh would be near the front of the queue for his love
A papal odyssey to the heart of Asia

Pope Francis blesses people during the weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Nov. 8. (Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP) 

Pope Francis will visit Myanmar Nov. 27-30 and Bangladesh Nov. 30-Dec. 2. These two countries, with Catholic populations that are relatively tiny but resilient, are among the most challenged in terms of poverty, political instability, religious and ethnic conflict and persecution. In this piece, the first part of a series, we look at both economies, with marginalized people living off wages on or below accepted poverty lines and what the papal visit will entail in Catholic terms for the 212 million of the world's most marginalized people.

 

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Pope Francis' week long journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh beginning on Nov. 27 is the next concrete and quite possibly most potent step so far in exploring some of the central themes of his pontificate. These are: the mission of the Church to go to the margins and find life in abundance there; his stated geographical focus on Asia; the urgent problems of the degradation of the earth's environment by human beings; and his extraordinary compassion and willingness to speak to power on the singular moral issue of the world today — the mounting millions of global refugees, so many of them children.

As he told parish leaders on a visit to Rome in June 2014, "In the Gospel there's the beautiful passage about the shepherd who realizes that one of his sheep is missing, and he leaves the 99 to go out and find the one," Pope Francis told the parish leaders. "But, brothers and sisters, we have only one. We're missing 99! We must go out and find them." So away he goes!

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The two nations, with just over 120 years of history between them in their present boundaries and with tragic, bloodstained histories since slipping the bonds of British colonialism in 1947, sit at the junction of the major geographical blocs of South, Southeast and North Asia and have their maritime littorals abut where the great Indian and Pacific Oceans meet.

There are few more marginalized places outside Africa in socio-economic terms and for their relatively tiny Catholic populations than the Pope's two destinations. Bangladesh and Myanmar are in the top five of the poorest countries in Asia. Myanmar ranks third poorest and Bangladesh ranks fifth poorest.

Their Catholic populations are relatively tiny but resilient: Myanmar has an estimated 750,000 Catholics in an official population of some 52 million and there are only an estimated 350,000 Catholics in a Bangladeshi population of more than 160 million. Recently, the significance of both countries for the Catholic Church has been greatly enhanced by the archbishops of the two nations' capitals being made cardinals by Pope Francis – Charles Maung Bo (Yangon) and Patrick D'Rozario (Dhaka). As well, they are home to significant populations of the world's other great religions: Bangladesh is majority Muslim, Myanmar majority Buddhist and both share borders with the world's Hindu powerhouse, India, and both are home to Hindu minorities.

Pope Francis is coming to countries that are new and struggling democracies; among the most challenged in terms of the complex web of political instability, religious and ethnic conflict and persecution, population size and its growth and environmental devastation.

This trip to the margins in both world and Catholic terms will not only entail significant physical challenges for the 80-year-old pontiff amid still hot and humid conditions but a series of visits, encounters and meetings that present unprecedented opportunities to shine a light on 212 million of the world's most marginalized people. And the visits will require the most delicate diplomatic nuance to achieve some of the results that have been targeted.

After a couple of early trips to Asia, in the shape of his 2014 trip to Asian Youth Day in Korea and his 2015 visit to the Philippines, the beating heart of Catholic Asia, and then to today's largely conflict free and democratic Sri Lanka, this time he is throwing himself right into the heart of Asia.

 

Tens of millions on the economic margins

"Looking up at His disciples, Jesus said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Luke 6:5

If Jesus Christ were alive today, there is little doubt that the people of Myanmar and Bangladesh would be near the front of the queue for his love. So, it is little surprise that this significant slice of humanity has attracted the attention of his latest vicar.


Only a tiny proportion of the approximately 212 million or more people who live in Bangladesh and Myanmar do much more than economically subsist or worse.  Despite having respectively annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates of 7.1 percent and 6.5 percent, their peoples only have average per capita incomes of $1,275 (Bangladesh) and $1,364 (Myanmar), according to the World Bank. Bangladesh has the additional handicap of being one of the world's most densely populated countries with its estimated 160 million people squeezed into just 147,570 square kilometers.

According to the World Food Program, about 40 million urban and rural poor people in Bangladesh are highly food-insecure as they don't have enough access to sufficient and nutritious food.  The UN group also noted that undernutrition rates continue to be among the highest in the region. More than 35 percent of children in Myanmar show signs of stunted growth caused by chronic malnutrition, while 8 percent of children are acutely malnourished. In Bangladesh, stunting — a condition induced by poor nutrition, with negative effects on a child's physical growth and cognitive development — affects 36 percent children under five, with peaks of 50 percent among the poorest and those living in slums, according to World Food Program Bangladesh. In total, 5.5 million children under five are chronically malnourished.

Both nations remain agrarian economies, particularly in terms of labor force participation. In Bangladesh, some 60 percent of the total labor force directly or indirectly is involved in agriculture. In Myanmar the figure is 70 percent, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Rapid urbanization and industrialization have swept from north through to the south and southeast in Bangladesh over recent years and have shrunk country's agricultural lands. However, Bangladesh has almost tripled food production and is almost self-sufficient in food. Myanmar, before World War II the rice bowl of Asia, is aiming to regain a position as rice exporter. 

Bangladesh has made decent strides in poverty reduction. Official rates fell from 49 percent in the 1990s to 25 percent by 2014, according to the World Bank. The economy has grown 5-6 percent annually during this period and per capita income has grown with it. However, nearly 48 million people still live below the poverty line and about 27 percent are classified as "extremely poor."

Another economic lifeline of these countries is remittance from overseas migrant workers. Bangladesh has about 8 million expatriate workers, Myanmar at least 4 million — mostly in Middle East countries for the former and Thailand for the latter — making a vital contribution to the economic life of the country.   Yet these people remain among the world's most vulnerable to human slavery and trafficking, according to the United States government.

Bangladesh's US$25 billion apparel industry has become the world's second largest after China's, and it is where major Western brands — including H&M, ZARA, Gap and Wal-Mart — source their clothes. The apparel sector is the largest industrial employer with 4 million workers, mostly semi-skilled poor rural women.  Low margin, intense labor jobs such as these have been coming to Myanmar since the military began a process of reform and opening up to foreign companies in 2010. In the commercial capital Yangon, across the river from the main city area, farmland is being rapidly transformed into a vast industrial zone as manufacturers from China in particular, seek cheaper labor and unorganized labor forces unfortunately ripe for exploitation.

Both nations' labor practices and appalling safety and working conditions have plagued the industry for years, resulting in deaths of about 2,000 workers in fatal accidents since 1990s. In the worst instance, the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka collapsed in 2013, leaving over 1,130 workers dead and thousands injured.   

It prompted Pope Francis to decry: "Living on 38 euros (US$50) a month — that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor," Pope Francis said in a private impromptu sermon at his personal morning Mass at his residence, Vatican Radio reported.

Bangladesh is the world's tenth largest tea producer and the sector's workers are a vulnerable and marginalized community as their life is one of perpetual servitude. A registered worker gets little over US$ 1 daily and a few kilograms of food as a monthly ration, according to the 2016 International Labor Organisation (ILO) report.  A worker's family is provided with a mud-walled house by the company. But they are often too small, dilapidated and unsanitary. Most tea estates have no school as their owners discourage them from getting any education or training so that they don't leave their jobs. They are excluded from the majority Bengali society and have largely lost their culture, tradition and language due to their loss of connection with their Indian origins.

In Myanmar, hill farming is even more invidious, if generally better paid. The mountains in the country's northern states — Kachin, Shan, Karen and Kayah — are in or about the notorious drug producing Golden Triangle Zone that transverse Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Workers in so-called opium poppy villagers (opium poppies are the basis for heroin production) exist in the world's blackest economy and rely on brutal drug lords for their survival.

Both economies are full of examples of marginalized people living off wages on or below accepted poverty lines.

To be continued.

For a comprehensive understanding of Pope Francis' visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and to read the entire article "Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two Nations in the Heart of Asia" subscribe to La Civilta Cattolica available in both print and digital formats. UCAN publishes La Civilta Cattolica in English. This monthly is a highly popular and non-specialist review of religion and theology, culture and science, literature and art, politics and society and has the reputation for being the best barometer of thinking inside the Vatican.

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