By Antonio Anup Gonsalves
The bishops of Burma held a three-day seminar earlier this month to discuss the Church’s role in reconciliation as the country transitions to civilian rule after more than 50 years of military government.
More than 70 bishops, priests, and religious gathered March 10-12 in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, to “examine the role of the Church in nation building.”
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon said in his keynote address that “The nation is at a crossroads of challenges and opportunities.”
Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled by a military junta from 1962 to 2011; the junta’s dissolution has begun to usher in democtractic and economic reforms, including the release of opposition political activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
Elections in November 2015 – the first openly contested general election in Burma since 1990 – gave Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party control of both houses of parliament. While Suu Kyi is barred from holding the presidency by the Burmese constitution, her close ally Htin Kyaw was elected president March 15.
The first civilian president of Burma, Htin Kyaw will take office March 30. It is hoped that his administration will move toward establishing diplomatic ties with the Holy See.
Fr. Leo Mang told CNA that the bishops’ symposium “discussed the areas of reconciliation and peacebuilding through dialogue; protecting the rights of women, children, and ethnic minority groups; and enhancing education and capacity-building.”
Cardinal Bo commented, “As we gather today in the Lenten season, we cannot forget the people for whom Lent is not only 40 days, but is 365 days: for our poor country, it was a long Lent.”
He lamented that Burma’s own “way of the cross” is formed by a lack of education for the majority of its people; a crony economy that deprives the poor of the right to land; and a lack of peace, with continuing conflict leading to refugee camps “becoming permanent homes for thousands of innocent people.”
“We seek no confrontation with anyone,” the cardinal said. “As citizens of Myanmar we have gathered here to explore avenues of collaboration. Peace, with justice, we hope will bring prosperity to this long-suffering nation.”
Cardinal Bo stressed that “people are hopeful that their decades-long way of the cross will end with the resurrection of democracy.”
Cardinal Bo also pointed to key issues which require urgent attention, saying, “With great urgency the Church needs to commit itself to the mission of reconciliation in this country.”
One of the major issues facing Burma is ethnic strife: the Rohingya, a minority group who practice Islam, has long been persecuted by the country’s Buddhist, Bamar majority; and civilians in Kachin state, many of whom are Christian, have been targeted in fighting since 2011.
Of Burma’s 16 dioceses, 15 are predominantly serve ethnic minorities. Cardinal Bo expressed the view that there is a need for dialogue and partnering with other religious groups as well as government agencies to find the root to concrete solutions.
The cardinal slammed the “myopic policies of rulers that fragmented the nation,” which he said have shed innocent blood, exiled millions, destroyed natural resources, and enabled drug abuse.
Burma has suffered ongoing internal conflict since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, resulting in a great loss of natural wealth and forests. “Myanmar is the richest country in Asia, where the poorest people live,” Cardinal Bo reflected.
One of the other major areas of attention at the bishops’ symposium was education, given that 60 percent of Burmese children fail to complete primary school.
Cardian Bo lamented that in the last six decades a “systematic effort has been made to destroy education, forcing three generations of youngsters to be handicapped” educationally. He charged that the nationalization of the 1960s deteriorated the quality of education in the country: all Christian schools were taken over by the government, and missionary priests and religious were made to leave the country.
“We were in the forefront of quality education in this country till our schools were taken at midnight,” Cardinal Bo said. “Sadly it was never dawn afterwards.”
“We want to empower the poor with quality education,” he stated. “For those thousands who seek solace in drugs and unsafe migration, we want to show that Myanmar can be a land of opportunity if quality education is imparted … I foresee church re-entry into education in a big way in the future.”
Regarding the crony economy, Cardinal Bo said that “peace is possible only when the benefits of natural resources are shared with justice with all, especially the local people.”
Concluding the seminar, the Yangon prelate reminded the participants that such events often end with great-sounding documents and paperwork, but that “I personally wish that we avoid that trap.”
“Any gathering that does not translate its resolutions into actions at the ground level faces the danger of irrelevance,” Cardinal Bo stressed. “I do hope by the end of three days, we have not many resolutions, but some urgent and important tasks that the Church can plan and do as soon as possible for the good of our people.”
Other speakers at the gathering discussed Burma’s socio-political landscape, and both Buddhist and Muslim perspectives on peace-building in the country.
Other bishops and lay speakers also deliberated on several topics of Social political landscape, education and human development; Peace and justice: role of the society and Church in Myanmar; Fellowship journey in nation building with Buddhist perspective on building peace and Islamic perspective on building peace in Myanmar.