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“Myanmar is on the threshold of hope.” This is how the Archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo pictures his country’s future as the new democratically elected government – the first in 50 years – takes office. President Htin Kyaw is flanked by 18 new ministers, including the historic democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who will head up foreign affairs, education and energy.
“After over half a century of brutal oppression by a series of military regimes and after a civil war that lasted over 60 years,” says the archbishop in a statement shared with Vatican Insider, “we now have the chance to start building a new Myanmar, to build on democratic values, to protect and promote human rights, to work for peace. It is a new day for Myanmar.”
“We have the opportunity to make progress on the path towards reconciliation and freedom. There is a lively civil society and mass media are freer. Hope does not have an expiry date,” Bo says. Bo was created a cardinal by Pope Francis and is renowned for his poetic way of reasoning.
The cardinal is keen to point out that “this is only the start” and he lists a series of key questions: poverty, education, human trafficking, drug trafficking, protection of freedom of expression, constitutional reform, as well as socio-economic issues such as healthcare.
He recalls that “in Myanmar today, 60% of children do not finish elementary school; the maternal mortality rate is the highest in Southeast Asia; the country has a shortage of doctors – even here there is a negative record. Also, how can we forget that we are the second biggest producer of opium in the world?”
Herein lie “two of the most urgent challenges”: freedom of religion and ethnic conflicts. In order to progress towards development and wellbeing, “we desperately need to work to defend people’s rights indiscriminately, to guarantee equal rights for all citizens of every ethnicity and religion,” Bo observes. Indeed, Myanmar is a country with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious history, although it is a majority Buddhist country.
It should be said that in the last four years, the rights of religious minorities were seriously threatened. The violent campaign in the state of Arakan in 2012 led to the spread of anti-Muslim hatred in the provinces of Meikhtila, Oakkan and Lashio in 2013 and Mandalay in 2014.
A set of restrictive laws were then approved: in 2015, the outgoing government introduced a package of four new measures, known as the “Race and Religion Protection bills”, which, the archbishop reveals, “represent a serious threat to our country”.
Two of these laws restrict the right to religious conversion and interreligious marriage: “The choice of whom one married and what one believes in are among the most basic human rights. These laws are a threat to the dream of a united Myanmar,” he explains.
These laws were conceived by a movement that is anything but inclusive: the group, which was called “969”, before transforming itself into the Ma Ba Tha organisation, began to preach an “intolerant Buddhist nationalism”. “There is a neofascist movement that is completely distorting the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and which continues to threaten our fragile democracy and the prospects for peace, prosperity and stability,” the cardinal warned.
Linked to this, is the question of the conflict with ethnic minorities and the need for a serious national reconciliation plan. “Most of the Kachin, Chin, Naga and Karenni peoples and a significant portion of the Karens are Christians,” Bo notes. “During the decades of armed conflict, the military transformed religion into an instrument of oppression.”
“True peace and true freedom are based on respect for Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity,” he states. And this is why the ceasefire and an effective reconciliation plan are, in the eyes of the prelate, a priority for the new government.
The Church in Myanmar is urging the new government to “take action in order to prevent hate speeches that encourage violence, bringing the perpetrators to justice and showing a moral leadership”. Finally, the hope is that “the four laws on race and religion are not applied and that swift action is taken to solve the intolerable situation of the Rohingya Muslims who must be considered citizens.”