Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, spoke to The Sunday Guardian on the situation in Myanmar, which is under army rule.
London: Since 1 February 2021, His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has been a steady voice advocating democracy and a peaceful solution to the turmoil in Myanmar. Cardinal Bo has shown courage in speaking out candidly against merciless injustices and in support of the most vulnerable. His prayers and sermons have offered comfort and hope to the community.
Born in the Archdiocese of Mandalay, Cardinal Bo was made Cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015. Earlier, he was appointed as Bishop of Pathein by Pope John Paul II on 13 March 1996. He served as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar from 2000 to 2006. On 14 July 2018, the Holy Father Francis appointed him President Delegate of the XV Ordinary General Assembly on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” (October 2018). As of 1 January 2019, he is the President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. Cardinal Bo answered some questions from The Sunday Guardian:
Q: Your Eminence has spoken up for democracy on numerous occasions. Why is democracy so important and what is the future of democracy in Myanmar?
A: Democracy is the participation of the people, mostly the weak and the vulnerable. Democracy continues to be our people’s dream. Myanmar has sailed through the stormy seas of many conflicts. The nation building and state building exercises of the last seven decades have not brought comprehensive peace. This is mostly due to the various sections of the population feeling excluded in the nation building process. Many felt it was based on an exclusivist, majoritarian discourse. Many ethnic groups sought armed response. But as history shows there are no conclusive military victories. The conflicts are not solved, but managed. The democratic interlude proposed greater devolution of power and a true federalism. Sadly, that experiment remains aborted.
The future of democracy is challenged, all over the world. The present crisis started with alleged election malpractices, a narrative strong among millions even in the US. The sad events that are still continuing, in the US last year, I strongly feel, inspired the same narrative here. A political covid has infected the democratic process here.
A new generation of youth in Myanmar will find it difficult to make compromises on democracy. The present State Administrative Council, led by the army has promised elections in two years. I am hopeful the faith in democracy has strengthened and not diluted amidst all the unfortunate recent events.
Q: Is the Tatmadaw in any way looking after the people of Myanmar? Are hospitals being maintained, are citizens receiving vaccines fairly? There have been reports of confiscation of PPE and oxygen supplies for the exclusive use of the junta.
A: Myanmar faces a multi-layered crisis: conflict, Covid, collapse of the economy and climate change. Huge floods also attacked our people in recent weeks. Facing these challenges need a cohesive, inclusive approach even in robust economies. And that it is not here is known to the world. The health ministry has said that 40% of the health professionals are not available, owing to the recent protests and hiding, fearing reprisals. We did appeal many times to ensure the health professionals are assured of personal safety and to bring them into the mainstream. The progress is slow.
Covid needs the presence of the civil society and volunteers. The first two waves under the democratic government drew generous support from the civil society and the youth. Care centres and medical assistance could be established without any difficulty. But this time the participation of the people in the fight against the virus is cautious. The Delta strain spread like wildfire, carrying hundreds in a short time. There have been accusations of the confiscation of medical equipment, oxygen, etc. As far as I know things are better now.
Vaccination is happening, but has not crossed two digits so far. The conflict impacted the process started by the previous government. Then the Delta variant attacked our people, causing huge rates of infections and staggering sights of bodies waiting to be buried. Mercifully the suffocating rates are slowly relaxing this week.
Q: How is food insecurity being coped with? Why have prices risen so much?
A: Myanmar’s economy is an informal economy, nearly 70% of it. Most of the youths were migrant workers. The factories in Myanmar employed thousands of young women in garment factories. All these avenues are closed with disastrous results for our poor. WFP (World Food Programme) has announced that nearly 3.3 million people’s food security is at risk. The country has thousands of internally displaced people. It is a sad situation. Food security will be the number one crisis in the coming months.
Prices have risen because the supply chain was disturbed in the last six months. As the conflict erupted in February, business came to a halt, a bank crisis brought cash crunch. Conflict in many areas have disturbed agriculture. The country is on the boil for the last six months and we hope normalcy brings down prices.
Q: Do you feel the influence of China in the atmosphere of Myanmar today? How do you rationalise China’s culpability for letting Covid infect the world, and the coup d’état in Myanmar with the Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness?
A: China is desperate to be the big regional player, an Asian superpower. Sadly, it is adopting the past macho approach of other superpowers. A ruthless superpower approach is counterproductive, as Asia has demonstrated time and again. China has a great opportunity to offer another model of nurturing relationship. Sadly, its activities are viewed with suspicion by everyone, since it ultimately projects an image of a one way, resource extracting dragon. Myanmar people have shown their displeasure. China can still work with all actors in the country to bring peace based on justice.
The virus and China is a very highly contested narrative. We depend on science. What is becoming clear is the linkage to environmental destruction, the decreasing forest cover and the consumption of exotic animals. Even the coronavirus is suspected to be a part of zoonotic pathogens. Climate crisis is really a wake-up call and only a global approach can save us and China should be a partner in this. This is an area of deep concern in the coming generation.
Q: Since February, resistance to military oppression has kept its momentum; is there still unity between ethnicities and faiths?
A: A new generation with great dreams felt shattered by the sudden turn of events. After days of peaceful protests, which drew world attention, violence started. After seven months, still there are areas where protests continue.
But the army has put another process, with an interim government and promise of election in three years. We need to wait in hope, since the calculus of the resistance is changed. Many look for armed solution. There is not disunity, but a cohesive approach, embedding peace and reconciliation is a challenge. That might prove to be counter productive.
Q: Your Eminence’s parables have been an inspiration on social media. How is your congregation coping with the double crisis of Covid and the coup, and what is public morale like in Myanmar at present?
A: These times pose monumental challenge. Covid wiped out the livelihood of millions in a country already poor, with a fragile economy. Food is a major challenge. After Covid, every breath becomes a challenge. Our people have suffered a lot. Sad to see such graceful, peaceful people inflicted with these visceral wounds.
Then the conflict exploded. Thousands arrested; hundreds killed. War erupted in many places, ejecting thousands into miserable jungle refuge, lashed by a cruel monsoon rain. My people live with long silent nights, with tears too shattered to be described. This time is a real challenge to the dignity and the sense of survival of our people.
Yet, our people have walked through this way of the Cross before. They haver weathered physical, psychological and spiritual wounds. Deeply spiritual and forgiving, they move on. Even when their stomachs are empty, their hearts are full, in sharing whatever they have with one another, caring for one another. Their inherent sense of generosity, grace and grit through the darkness has sustained them. But how long this time, is a festering question. I appeal to all those who hold power in their hands: give peace a chance, take the huge burden off our simple people.
Q: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been the pro-democracy icon in Myanmar for 30+ years, Your Eminence has called her “the voice of the people”; how are things shaping up for the start of the trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on August 23-24. It was reported her belongings have been removed from her residence, and her lawyer has been barred from communicating with domestic and foreign media, foreign diplomats and NGOs. Will the world get some transparent and honest reporting?
A: The very next day of the coup, I appealed openly to release all, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has an international standing and the present events have brought more sympathy. As the former leader of this nation, I am sure she will be treated with all dignity and rights due to anyone.
Now the ASEAN process is on, we do hope a transparent judicial process and a due process of law will help in reconciliation. Not more restrictions, but greater transparency is the need of the hour.