Armed rebels belonging to the Kachin Independence Army move toward the front line near Laiza in Kachin State in this 2016 file picture. Myanmar has been racked with conflict for the entire 72 years of its independence. (Photo: Hkun Lat/AFP)
Unbowed, indeed perhaps emboldened, by the ill-informed attacks on him for calling out China for its role — by withholding information — in assisting the spread of Covid-19 and for its repressive murderous regime, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo has joined Pope Francis and others in calling for a global conflict ceasefire during the pandemic.
Just as he understands China better than his critics, the president of the Asian Federation of Bishops’ Conferences is also all too familiar with conflict. The country whose Church he has led so well as archbishop of Yangon for 17 years has been racked with conflict for the entire 72 years of its independence.
“I am convinced that continued military operations, precisely when the whole nation is suffering a crisis, will have catastrophic consequences for our nation,” the 71-year-old cardinal wrote in just the latest of so many missives he has released on the topic of peace.
“Now is the time for decisions that will build Myanmar as a united, peaceful, prosperous nation and member of the family of nations. Conflict makes Myanmar especially vulnerable.”
Cardinal Bo’s concerns, as a prince of the Catholic Church and leader of its Asian bishops, of course extend beyond the borders of his own country and across a region where peace has so frequently been interrupted.
His bid for peace in Myanmar has arguably been the most consistent thematic of his time as a prelate. In 1990, he was ordained as bishop of Lashio in Shan state, which shares a long border with China. It is a hub for trading with the Middle Kingdom, a battleground for drug lords — part of the notorious Golden Triangle — and home to several militias including the United Wa State Army, which has been reported to have 25,000 fighters but has now had 30 years of peace with the country’s military.
It is important to understand that Myanmar is the nation in South and Southeast Asia that has been most tortured by conflict since the Second World War. Civil wars have raged on and off for seven decades between dozens of ethnic militias, mainly in the seven ethnic-based states that surround the center of the country where the majority ethnic group, the Bamar, live.
Some critics of Cardinal Bo’s full-frontal speaking of truth to the power of the Chinese Communist Party did not take the time to understand how China is seen in Myanmar as a putative economic and cultural colonist.
Bo himself put it very neatly in a presentation he made in July 2019.
“Ours is a nation endowed with scintillating beauty, copious natural resources and more than any great treasures, we have our great human treasures: eight major tribes [the Bamar and the seven ethnic groups who at least nominally have their own states] and 135 sub-tribes. This a colorful nation, once the envy of the whole of Southeast Asia,” he wrote.
“But God who was indulgent with resources and people seems to have forgotten to give peace. The nation has been wounded by festering wars. For the nearly six decades of its existence, the country has been at war, brother against brother. So much blood and tears have been shed.”
Gun violence has never been far from the very top of the country. Its first leader, General Aung San, the father of its present civilian leader, was assassinated by rivals. In recent decades, the hideous blight of landmines has also plagued Myanmar’s conflict zones, especially in the north where the civil war between four militias has been led by the Kachin Independence Army.
Once the richest country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has been blighted by war and its 50-year military rule and is now one of the poorest countries in the world. War, as Cardinal Bo has noted, has mutilated sustainable development.
“Not only myself but the whole Church and all of the bishops’ conference [in Myanmar] are focusing on the work on peace,” Cardinal Bo told an Australian Catholic conference in June 2018. “The Church is very much involved in the sense that we could negotiate with all the groups. In fact, many would say they don’t have a voice [and] the Catholic Church is the voice for those people; for the voiceless, especially in building peace.”
In 2017, Cardinal Bo was the driving force behind a now annual conference in Yangon called Religions for Peace, designed for religious leaders to support the national process being run by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s worth repeating Cardinal Bo’s conclusion.
“Lay down all weapons and acts of aggression. Be armed instead with sincerity and truth. Let us take the more difficult path of overcoming differences face to face with courage and intelligence. Don’t hide humanity behind guns. In the end that is sheer weakness,” he wrote.
“Our encounters of Religions for Peace have shown that dialogue in coordinated ways among all parties is possible and fruitful. The Catholic Church of Myanmar has a clear national plan for cooperation at local levels with authorities at every level. We are ready at all times to encourage and mediate new and timely dialogue among diverse parties.”
As they say in politics, never waste a good crisis — and there is unlikely to be anyone arguing with Cardinal Bo on this one.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.