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Benedict Rogers

How long will the world drag its feet on Myanmar?

Peace in Ukraine remains a priority, but we cannot abandon what we might perceive as our backyard either
Published: December 07, 2022 11:33 AM GMT

Updated: January 05, 2023 11:32 AM GMT

An internationally-respected Baptist leader is arrested and detained, a Cardinal’s home village is bombed and seven students are sentenced to death

In this file photo taken on July 7, 2021, protesters hold a banner that reads: 'Fight by keeping spirits of 7 July up, destroy the dictatorship from the root by all means,' during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. The Myanmar junta handed out at least seven more death sentences this week, taking the tally of those on death row to 139, according to the United Nations. (Photo: AFP)

An internationally-respected Baptist leader is arrested and detained, a Cardinal’s home village is bombed and seven students are sentenced to death — yet still the corridors of power around the world echo with silence and inaction over the tragedy in Myanmar.

On Monday, Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson, the former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), was stopped at Mandalay International Airport, on his way to Bangkok.

Reverend Samson, who served as KBC president from 2018-2022 and general secretary from 2010-2018, is now the chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly and is one of Myanmar’s most prominent and outspoken Christian religious leaders and defenders of human rights.

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In 2018, he visited the United Kingdom as part of an inter-faith, inter-ethnic delegation from northern Myanmar which I helped organize and had the privilege of co-hosting.

In 2019, he traveled to Washington, DC, to participate in the International Religious Freedom Ministerial Conference, where he was among religious leaders from around the world who met with the United States president in the White House.

In April 2021, just two months after the military coup in Myanmar, he issued an appeal for prayers for Myanmar, together with the current KBC general secretary.

Reverend Samson is a truly tireless and courageous man. He should be honored, not detained.

The world should be crying out loudly for his release, and the Church — worldwide and in all its traditions — should be praying for him.

He is my friend and, even if no one else acts, I won’t rest until he is freed.

Less than 10 days earlier, Mon Hla, in the Sagaing division, the home village of Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Catholic archbishop of Yangon, was attacked by the military. Several civilians, including a seven-year-old child, were killed while hundreds of homes were burned down in the attack on Nov. 24.

"I won’t rest until my friend Cardinal Bo’s message of dialogue, justice, freedom and peace is fulfilled"

Cardinal Bo is one of my dearest friends in Myanmar. More than that, he is my spiritual mentor and the one who introduced me to the Catholic faith and received me into it, on Palm Sunday in St Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon in 2013.

He has been a tireless and brave champion of human rights, justice and peace — speaking truth to power but seeking dialogue with Myanmar’s tyrants.

In 2015, I visited Mon Hla with him, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Episcopal ordination. It is, like Cardinal Bo, an inter-faith village — a community of Catholics and Buddhists who have lived together in harmony for decades.

Now, as Mon Hla’s homes lie in ashes, we should be praying — for His Eminence, for his people of all religions and ethnicities, and for peace. Once again, I won’t rest until my friend Cardinal Bo’s message of dialogue, justice, freedom and peace is fulfilled.

As if the arrest of a Baptist leader and an attack on a Catholic cardinal’s village is not enough, the military junta has sentenced seven student protesters to death. Indeed, according to the United Nations, secret military courts have imposed the death penalty on at least 130 people in Myanmar over the past year.

This is an atrocity unheard of even in Myanmar’s deeply dark seven decades or more of repression. Yet apart from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ remarks, where is the global outcry?

This is far from being the first time I have cried out to the world for Myanmar. I have done so many times in the past two years. And I know this won’t be the last. But next to the appalling atrocities in Ukraine, it is hard to think of another part of the world where crimes against humanity as egregious as those perpetrated in Myanmar are occurring, yet little action is being taken.

Three years ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres finally awoke from his Beijing-backed siesta, extracted his fingers from the China-funded slush-fund, and admitted that the world has failed Myanmar.

In a naïve but nevertheless welcome statement, Guterres called on Myanmar’s illegal dictators, led by Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, Guterres called on the military to return the country to the path of democracy.

Yet even in these welcome statements, the arbiter of the world’s conflicts is showing a depressing lethargy and apathy. When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, Guterres’ predecessor Ban Ki-moon led a high-level diplomatic effort to provide a humanitarian response.

In contrast, Guterres shows the zeal of a snail. Whether that is because he is taking his orders from Beijing or is showing a Portuguese equivalent of “mañana” remains to be seen.

"Wringing our hands does us no good, except when we put them together either to pray or to applaud those who do the right thing"

Either way, we need a new UN General-Secretary soon, for the sake of humanity.

But wringing our hands does us no good, except when we put them together either to pray or to applaud those who do the right thing. What we need is action.

Western countries — the US, UK, EU, and Canada — have imposed some sanctions against Myanmar military-owned enterprises over the past two years. These are very welcome.

One sanction that has not yet been implemented but could be a game-changer is a sanction on aviation fuel. As Amnesty International has documented, several global companies are selling aviation fuel to Myanmar. If they were to stop, it would become much more difficult for the Myanmar military to launch airstrikes against innocent civilians across the country. Burma Campaign UK has led the way on this, and we should support their campaign to stop providing aviation fuel to Myanmar — and thereby stop the bombing and killing.

When my friends are arrested, their home villages bombed and when brave people are executed for standing for democracy and freedom, I cannot stay silent. And I cannot understand why others remain so quiet.

If we believe in freedom, we have to defend it at home; we must fight for it in the arenas such as Ukraine that are in our news headlines; but we cannot abandon it in what we might perceive as far-away backwaters either. For it’s in our backwaters as much as in our backyards that we grow fruit or, if we neglect them, allow poisonous weeds to flourish.

The question is whether we lack the will to deal with the poisonous weeds that have toxified Myanmar for so long – and whether we have the energy to help detoxify the country, by working with its diverse religious, ethnic and pro-democracy groups to establish a federal, inclusive democracy for which so many have given so much for so long.

*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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