Pope's mission to Myanmar will focus on peace for all

Criticizing military and government over Rohingya crisis may be counterproductive, says Cardinal Charles Maung Bo
Pope's mission to Myanmar will focus on peace for all

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon talks to ucanews.com about the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar in late November. (ucanews.com photo)

While the tragic plight of the Rohingya has grabbed the world's attention, Myanmar's first cardinal has said the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar is aimed broadly to help bring peace and reconciliation to all levels of one of Asia's most conflict-ridden countries.

In an interview with ucanews.com, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon revealed that the pope will consider the totality of the country's challenges including the tragic exodus of over 500,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State, the 120,000 people, many Christians, trapped in displaced persons camps in Kachin and Shan states as well as other mainly Christian groups in camps across the Thai border.

For years, Cardinal Bo has been something of a lone voice in Myanmar in his warnings about the human rights situation of the Rohingya especially regarding human trafficking that saw unknown thousands of Rohingya perish in so-called death camps in remote areas of Thailand and on packed, unseaworthy vessels.

Since then he has urged the Myanmar government to act before terrorism reached Rakhine State.

But despite both his and the pope's well-known advocacy for the Rohingya, Cardinal Bo has admitted that headline stories linking the pope's visit with the snowballing Rohingya crisis has added a degree of difficulty to the visit.

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Even the pope's brief public support for the Rohingya triggered a barrage of nationalist–soaked criticism across Burmese language social media of the pope and Catholics and Christians in general.

"If we say that the pope's visit is mainly on the Rohingya issue, it is out of context," Cardinal Bo said, explaining that the country's modern history has been tragic.

Since independence from Britain in 1948 the country has been wracked by civil wars. The military has fought more than half a dozen of its biggest ethnic minorities, including the ethnic Rakhine who are Buddhists, that the military now says it is protecting.

Myanmar's difficult path to peace and the relentless economic problems of a country emerging from decades of neglect were at the center of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's recent attempt to explain her government's inaction on the Rohingya crisis to international diplomats.

In his interview, Cardinal Bo made it clear that Pope Francis understood the realities of Myanmar's political situation and that it was not his job to interfere.

"The problem will not be solved just by the Holy Father commenting on the Rohingya. Criticizing the military and the government may be counterproductive," Cardinal Bo said.

"We cannot allow the pope to make comments and then leave with the church in opposition with the military, the government and the Buddhist community," he said.

But Cardinal Bo was sure that the pope would address the Rakhine crisis and the ongoing civil war in Kachin in ways acceptable to Myanmar's authorities, the military and the Buddhist majority.

"The pope's motto is love and peace: love means among the ethnic groups, among the religious people and the majority Buddhist and other religions, peace means to end decades-long civil wars which are still raging in the country's north," Cardinal Bo said.

"The problem of Rohingya is certainly a great problem. Yet one must address it in the wider situation of the issues of all people," he said. "To reduce his visit only to address one problem will put the aims and objectives of this visit out of focus and will be very counter-productive."

Cardinal Bo was keen to impress upon the international community the complex and delicate power sharing reality that Suu Kyi has with the nation's military.

"We are two parallel governments," he said.

The military rigged the 2008 constitution in its favor, trapping the civilian government with responsibility but little real power outside the economy and government services.

"They (the international community) don't really understand the real situation. Suu Kyi is facing a tightrope and no one could doubt she sacrificed her life and she is filled with integrity," Cardinal Bo said.

"Her main obstacle is dealing with the military and the road she walks is slippery and difficult," he said.

 

Making the Myanmar choice

Cardinal Bo said that, despite 40 standing invitations from various governments to visit their countries, Pope Francis asked if he could travel to Myanmar. The request followed the realization that India's Hindu-nationalist government was mishandling arrangements for a planned trip there.

The cardinal had to take the request to the country's de-facto leader Aung Sa Suu Kyi who replied with a positive response within a week. Cardinal Bo described the time frame as so tight that the Vatican had to press, successfully, for a formal presidential invite.

But this could not have occurred without the opening of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Nay Pyi Taw for the first time in May this year, the cardinal explained.

The pope is focused on Asia, home to hundreds of millions of followers of each of the world's four big religions Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, he said.

In the region, religious persecution abounds but so does growth in church numbers in many country's despite Catholicism being a minority faith in every nation except the Philippines and Timor-Leste.

"Pope Francis is focusing on minorities, those at the margins and Catholics in Bangladesh and Myanmar are minority groups," Cardinal Bo said.

In Bangladesh, the country's 300,000 Catholics are dwarfed by the more than 150 million Muslim majority. In Myanmar about 700,000 Catholics account for about 25 percent of the Christian population which itself is only 6.2 percent of Myanmar's official 51 million population.

The pope will visit Myanmar Nov. 27-30 and then neighboring Bangladesh Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.

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