A political minefield in Myanmar

Pope Francis had stepped carefully through a political minefield when he visited Myanmar from Nov. 27-30. This majority-Buddhist state with 52 million inhabitants is on an uphill road to full democracy because the military, which ruled for 60 years, still holds the balance of power.

Dec 02, 2017

By Gerard O’Connell
Pope Francis had stepped carefully through a political minefield when he visited Myanmar from Nov. 27-30. This majority-Buddhist state with 52 million inhabitants is on an uphill road to full democracy because the military, which ruled for 60 years, still holds the balance of power.

Myanmar’s two-year old democratically elected government led by Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, has drawn worldwide criticism in recent months because of the persecution of the Rohingya, a minority Muslim population, by the military. Approximately 620,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar’s Rakhine state to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.

On the eve of the Pope’s visit, Bangladesh’s foreign minister announced that his country had struck a deal with Myanmar for the return of hundreds of thousands of these refugees, though the details are not yet clear.

“The Catholics are very excited; and also the other Christians. The Buddhists, the Muslims and the Hindus too, have been very cooperative, they’re very happy with the visit of the Pope,” Cardinal Charles Bo said just before the Pope’s visit.

Many inside and outside the country have monitored carefully what Francis said during his visit. Aware of all this, Francis spelt out clearly the purpose of his trip in a video-message, on Nov 17, to the inhabitants of this country.

“I come to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace,” he stated in “a word of friendship and greeting to all the people” of Myanmar.

These three things — “reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace” — are greatly needed in this country, which, after gaining independence from Britain in 1948, suffered under harsh military rule from 1962 to 2011. That period squashed the idea of greater autonomy or political representation that the main ethnic minorities had hoped for — and which Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was seeking to put in place before his assassination. Years of military rule exacerbated internal conflicts that started almost with independence and are still under way, between ethnic minorities — including the Kachin and Karen, among whom are many Christians — and the central government forces. The military sought to control the situation by force, displacing thousands of people, and inflicting widespread human rights abuses, and the repression of the Rohingya. (The government does not recognise the Rohingya as a minority ethnic group.)

The 60 years of military rule has left many tensions and open wounds in the body politic, which the new civilian government is seeking to address.

“I visit the nation with a spirit of respect and encouragement for every effort intended to build harmony and cooperation in the service of the common good,” Francis said in his video message. Vatican officials say that his visit may contribute to the strengthening of democracy in this land where 87.9 per cent of the population are Buddhist, 6.2 per cent Christian (including 750,000 Catholics), 4.3 per cent Muslim, and the rest are Hindu and animist.

Religion plays a central role in the life of this country and in his video message, Francis emphasised “the need” for “believers and men of good will” in this land “to grow in mutual understanding and respect, and to support each other as members of the single human family, as we are all children of God.”-- America Magazine

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