For years nobody cared much about Burma. It was an opaque and isolated despotism, its internal moving parts a bleak mystery to the world. Behind its borders lay a country equally beautiful and dangerous. On the one hand, there were the serene medieval temples and pagodas dotting the countryside. On the other, there was the longest civil war in history, a complex battle between the government and Burma’s minority ethnic groups that’s still raging today.
The conflict dates back to 1948, when Burma gained its independence from the British Empire. Many of its minorities were promised regional autonomy. No government has ever granted it.
Burma has more than 135 ethnic groups, officially divided into eight “major national ethnic races”. The largest are the Bamar, the dominant group who control the government and the military.
One of the most persecuted minorities are the Rohingya, a Muslim group who live mostly along the country’s western coast in a state that borders Bangladesh. The central government in Naypyidaw refuses to recognise the Rohingya, and their status has made them vulnerable to the worst abuses of the Burmese army. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh report mass rape by government soldiers.
The Rohingya are frequent targets for expulsion, for both racial and economic reasons. Like many ethnic minorities, they live in resource-rich hinterlands, making their territory valuable for government development projects. The UN high commissioner for human rights has described this as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Others have called it genocide.
Pope Francis will travel to Burma next week – the first pontiff to make the journey. In a video message, he said his goal was to bring the Gospel, a message of “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace”, to the fractured country. It is not the most likely destination for the Bishop of Rome. Out of a population of more than 55 million, 88 per cent are Buddhist. The country’s Christian population is significant but still very much a minority, coming in at under 3.5 million. Catholics by themselves are barely one per cent of the total population.
These Catholics are casualties of their nation’s profound problems. They face discrimination from a bigoted and corrupt government, and must contend with the mass violence and immiseration that has consumed Burma. (The old ruling junta began calling the country Myanmar in 1989. Some Western countries went along with the change, but neither the US nor Britain uses the name.)
Since 2011, when a ceasefire agreement fell apart, churches have suffered considerable damage. Burma is composed of seven states, each named after the country’s largest ethnic minority groups. In Kachin State alone the conflict has destroyed more than 60 churches. In Shan State last December the army bombed a Catholic church as it fought the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic insurgent groups.
The war has devastated Burma’s faithful. In an email, Fr Christopher Raj, who works in social services in Shan State, described a country in which beleaguered Christians face a deteriorating civil society. Writing on behalf of Bishop Philip Za Hawng of Lashio, Fr Raj said the ethnic conflict has burdened Catholic priests, who have turned many churches into shelters for those affected by the violence. This, he said, has created a “spirit of dependency” among Burmese Christians.
“Now that the armed conflict is prolonged there are children born in the camps and brought up in the shelters,” Fr Raj wrote. “The children are brought up in an abnormal situation, with no knowledge … of earning one’s wage by working in the fields or factory.”
Beyond the violence, there is institutional prejudice. “The oppression of Catholics and the Christians in general in our country is subtle and systematic,” Fr Raj said.
Against this bloody backdrop, the world has looked to Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy activist and stateswoman, for moral leadership. A longstanding political prisoner, she emerged several years ago as Burma’s Nelson Mandela. But as her country became an even bigger slaughterhouse, especially for the Rohingya, she grew oddly reticent.
Fr Raj, however, believes there is one true “voice of the voiceless”: Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon (Rangoon). Bo was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015. He is Burma’s first cardinal, appointed half a millennium after the Portuguese brought Catholicism to the country. He has defended Suu Kyi against international criticism, saying she is “in her own clever way trying to negotiate with the military”.
Bo has a tendency to combine compassion and moral clarity with realism and caution. He has harshly condemned the government’s oppression and murder of the Rohingya, but has also said it’s too early to call it ethnic cleansing.
He has warned the Pope that even using the term “Rohingya” is considered an offensive political statement, and has urged the Vatican to avoid it. Will Francis listen?
What’s the correct strategy? Unapologetic truth-telling or measured pragmatism? The answer isn’t clear. But at least now the world is paying attention.
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent