Relatives cry over the body of policeman Chit Lin Thu, who had joined the protests against the military coup, after he was shot dead by security forces during a demonstration in Yangon's Insein township on March 27. (Photo: AFP/Facebook)
Palm Sunday in Myanmar eight years ago and Armed Forces Day in the country yesterday are juxtaposed in my mind as day and night, life and death, heaven and hell contrast with each other. As the Church begins Holy Week, Myanmar is yet again beginning its very real and tragic Way of the Cross.
Yesterday was the bloodiest day in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 coup as more than 100 people were killed, taking the death toll in the past eight weeks to over 400. The real figure is likely to be much higher. Myanmar’s military has unleashed a reign of terror in which children as young as five years old have been killed and young babies blinded by rubber bullets or orphaned as their parents are arrested or shot dead in front of them. Over 3,000 people have been arrested.
Eight years ago today, I stood in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, as the waters of baptism were poured over me by the city’s archbishop — and subsequently Myanmar’s first-ever cardinal — Charles Bo. The cathedral bells rang out in celebration, the streets were filled with birdsong, hope was in the air and a group of friends from different ethnic and religious backgrounds — including Buddhists, Muslims, Protestants as well as of course Catholics from Myanmar and several foreigners practicing no particular religion — joined to witness the occasion.
My spiritual journey into the Church in this beautiful but benighted country marked a new chapter in my faith, just as Myanmar appeared to be beginning a new — and, we hoped, better — chapter in its political life. Political prisoners had been released, ceasefires with many ethnic armed groups had been agreed, space for civil society and media was opening and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been elected to parliament and was in dialogue about a democratic transition with the military that had detained her for so many years.
Lord Alton of Liverpool came to Myanmar with me, both as my sponsor into the Church and for a political and human rights fact-finding visit. Together we met Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed an interfaith, multi-ethnic gathering of civil society activists and met with former political prisoners and religious minorities. Neither of us were naïve, but we both felt that a new dawn was breaking for the country and that the military was finally turning a corner and beginning a path of some democratization and opening, however fragile.
The storm clouds on the horizon were clear to us then as we visited a Muslim community just outside the capital, Naypyidaw, who had been attacked a few days previously by Buddhist nationalists. A new wave of anti-Muslim hatred and violence had erupted, which predated the Rohingya genocide, and the challenges of developing an inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy were clear to us. Nonetheless, Myanmar appeared to be beginning a new era.
That new era for the country came to a juddering halt on Feb. 1 when the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, seized power in a coup, overthrowing and imprisoning the elected leaders of the country and plunging Myanmar back into levels of repression many hoped it had left behind.
But let’s not forget that the military which now stalks the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and all of Myanmar’s cities and townships, firing at protesters and shooting into apartments indiscriminately, is the same military that has been terrorizing people in the peripheries, in the ethnic states, for decades.
Some of the battalions raiding homes and arresting people in the cities were among those perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya and crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin and Shan states. And they have now intensified their assaults on the ethnic minorities again. Airstrikes were reported in Karen state yesterday for the first time in years, and in recent months over 8,000 civilians have been displaced by the Myanmar army’s offensive against the Karen.
As I contrast Myanmar today and the country where I became a Catholic eight years ago, it strikes me that amidst the instability, chaos, fear and terror, two institutions remain unchanged. The first is the military. The second is the Church.
For all the show of “reform” over the past decade, the military has proven itself unreformed. It successfully duped many — Aung San Suu Kyi, some ethnic groups and the international community.
The British ambassador Dan Chugg, in a tweeted statement yesterday, put it very well when he said: “On Myanmar's Armed Forces Day, the security forces have disgraced themselves by shooting unarmed civilians. Dozens of innocent people have reportedly been killed, including children. At a time of economic crisis, Covid and a worsening humanitarian situation, today’s military parade and extrajudicial killings speak volumes for the priorities of the military junta.”
In contrast, the Church I chose to join in Myanmar continues to show all the characteristics which drew me into it eight years ago: love, courage, compassion, wisdom, truth, justice, peace.
In Myitkyina in Kachin state, Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng kneels on the street, her arms outstretched, in front of the police, pleading with them not to shoot protesters. Her emeritus bishop, Francis Daw Tang, whom I know well and love dearly, stands alongside her, gently and quietly supporting her.
In Loikaw in Kayah state, a priest, Father Celso Ba Shwe, tries to urge the police to exercise restraint. Across the country, clergy, religious and laypeople are visibly engaged in the movement for justice. And my spiritual mentor and friend, who first attracted me to the Church, Cardinal Bo, continues to speak out with a combination of courage, graciousness and wisdom that is truly inspiring.
A life-changing moment
Ten years ago, I had a conversation with Cardinal Bo over dinner in his residence in Yangon — an oasis of tranquility in the bustling city — which changed my life. I had not been looking to become a Catholic, though I was always respectful of Catholic spirituality. Having become a Christian as a university student in 1994, I was happy as a member of the Church of England, worshiping in the evangelical end of the Anglican tradition.
But a spontaneous conversation with Cardinal Bo lit a spark in my spirit as I discovered a curiosity about Catholicism. I asked him — more out of curiosity than conscious intention — what someone who is already a Christian would need to do if they wanted to become a Catholic. I suppose I expected some long procedure, but his response struck me by its generosity and simplicity. “When a person can accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, they are ready to become a Catholic,” he said. As I allowed that basic but profound comment to sink in, he added something that I had not anticipated: “If you ever find yourself in that position, I would receive you into the Church here in Myanmar.”
I asked if I might come to Mass that Sunday, and he told me the times. I said I would plan to be at the evening Mass. He told me that he was celebrating Mass in another parish elsewhere in the archdiocese in the morning, but if I was coming to the evening Mass in the cathedral, he would join too, even though he was not the celebrant. I tried to dissuade him, suggesting he might prefer an evening off, but he gently said: “I’ll be there.”
When I arrived for the evening Mass, I expected him to be in the archbishop’s chair at the altar, even though he was not the celebrant. When he did not appear, I assumed he had changed his mind, done the sensible thing and taken the evening off. Only at the end of Mass, as I left my pew halfway up the cathedral and turned to leave, did I find him there, sitting a few rows behind me, among the congregation: the shepherd among his flock. With a big smile, he said: “Wait for me outside.” As parishioners left, he gave me a hug and said: “Come, I’ll show you around the cathedral”.
At that time, being seen in public with me was risky. I had recently authored a biography of Myanmar’s then military dictator, Than Shwe. And because of that book, a few days later I was deported from Myanmar by the regime. But as I left the country — and did not know whether I would be able to return — Cardinal Bo’s invitation into the Church lingered in my mind. On the flight to Bangkok, I avidly read a book he gave me – Light of the World, a conversation between Peter Seewald and Pope Benedict XVI.
And so began my journey into the Church. I knew that just because I liked one archbishop was not in itself a good enough reason to become a Catholic. But I also knew that his invitation to enter the Church in Myanmar — a country that has had such a special place in my heart for over 20 years — was one I had to at least explore.
I resolved to investigate further. A two-year journey of exploration began, reading everything from the Catechism in full to many encyclicals, as well as Thomas Merton, St. John Henry Newman, Hans Urs von Balthasar, GK Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge and Scott Hahn. Several Catholic friends, as well as two priests, in Britain journeyed with me, suggesting reading material, graciously answering questions about transubstantiation, papal infallibility and Our Lady, and praying for me.
Less than a year after my deportation, reforms in Myanmar led friends to encourage me to apply for another visa, which I was granted. I returned to the country and resumed my conversations with Cardinal Bo, who gave me the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which I read cover to cover. I was thrilled to find on the pages of this volume, along with the Catechism, an articulation of values and principles which as a Christian I had long held but seldom seen so clearly expressed — the vocational imperative of every follower of Christ to seek justice and defend freedom and human dignity.
The tragedy unfolding in Myanmar today makes me weep. It makes me weep for personal friends who have been jailed, exiled or are in hiding, fear and danger. It makes me weep for the children killed, the babies maimed or orphaned, the people murdered. It makes me weep for the lost dreams, the hopes set back, the freedom that was just beginning to be discovered now snatched away and trampled on by military boots.
But the faith I developed eight years ago today, which was a continuation of my existing Christian faith but in a new and renewed form, teaches me that we should not just weep. We must pray and we must act. We must sit on the street with our arms outstretched like Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng. We must advocate, mediate, help and heal. We must speak out boldly and wisely like Cardinal Bo.
Individually, we may have different roles — some may be on the front lines demonstrating, others may try to seek reconciliation, and others may be voices of truth to the international community. But whatever our role, we must — in the words of a prayer which Cardinal Bo prayed over me eight years ago today — follow the “source of light and truth” and “remain steadfast, never losing hope, never faltering in duty, never straying from the sacred truth, but ready at all times to receive your grace, through Christ our Lord.”
I can’t be in Myanmar, my spiritual home, on this eighth anniversary of my baptism into the Church. But as we enter Holy Week, I join with my brothers and sisters in Myanmar as they walk the path of Calvary and Golgotha yet again, and I unite my heart with them in the hope of Easter. I pray, in the words of Cardinal Bo’s recent Global Day of Prayer for Myanmar message, “for a new Myanmar to be born out of this current tragedy, a Myanmar where truly every human being has an equal stake in the country and equal rights to basic freedoms, a Myanmar where ethnic and religious diversity is celebrated and where we enjoy real peace, a Myanmar where the soldiers put down their guns, step back from power and do what an army is meant to do: defend rather than attack the people … A Myanmar that rises again from the ashes.”
Whether or not I am ever able to visit Myanmar again, I will never forget that eight years ago today in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, I began a new spiritual journey, one which continues, and I will be forever grateful to my courageous friend Cardinal Bo for opening the door for me.
Today the streets around the cathedral are filled with gunfire and fear instead of bells and birdsong as they were eight years ago. But in all circumstances, good and bad, those same streets are in my heart and the cause of the people is deep in my soul. Today, Palm Sunday, I celebrate the fact that I am a Catholic — part of the universal Church — but that I am especially a Myanmar Catholic. Please pray for my brothers and sisters in Myanmar this Holy Week.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC.He is the author of six books, including three on Myanmar, and his faith journey is told in his book ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’ (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.