On May 25th Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma, spoke before a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network. Below are sections from that speech, on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Burma and the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Please contact CSW‘s office for a copy of the full speech and further recommendations.
My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice, with five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Easter seemed a distant dream. My country was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades.
But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen. But it brings with it fresh challenges: reconciliation and peace-making, religious intolerance, land grabbing, constitutional limitations, and the fragile nature of a nascent democratic transition. And the old dangers have not gone away: the military remains powerful, corruption is widespread, and ethnic conflict continues in some parts of Myanmar.
“We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice (…) But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen.”
Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.
Nevertheless, we can be thankful that after over half a century of brutal oppression at the hands of a succession of military regimes, and after more than sixty years of civil war, we now have the possibility to begin to build a new Myanmar, to develop the values of democracy, to better protect and promote human rights, to work for peace.
Among the biggest challenges are protecting freedom of religion or belief for all and resolving ethnic conflict. We desperately need to work to defend rights without discrimination, to establish equal rights for all people in Myanmar, of every ethnicity and religion.
Freedom of religion or belief – as it is set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is perhaps the most basic, most foundational human right of all…without the freedom to choose, practise, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom.
“Among the biggest challenges are protecting freedom of religion or belief for all and resolving ethnic conflict (…) Without the freedom to choose, practise, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom.”
Over the past four years, the rights of religious minorities have come under increasing threat. Starting with the violence in Rakhine State in 2012, spreading to an anti-Muslim campaign in Meikhtila, Oakkan and Lashio in 2013, and to Mandalay in 2014, and then moving from violence, killing and destruction to a more insidious campaign of discrimination, hate speech and restrictive legislation, this movement – which began as a group called ‘969’ and transformed into an organisation known as ‘Ma Ba Tha’ – is based on an extremist, intolerant form of Buddhist nationalism that completely distorts the key teachings of Buddhism – of ‘Metta’, loving kindness, and ‘Karuna’, compassion – and instead preaches hatred and incites violence. In Rakhine State, tensions between the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya erupted in 2012, leaving more than 130,000 displaced and hundreds dead.
“In Rakhine State, tensions between the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya erupted in 2012, leaving more than 130,000 displaced and hundreds dead.”
The plight of the Rohingyas is an appalling scar on the conscience of my country. They are among the most marginalised, dehumanised and persecuted people in the world. They are treated worse than animals. Stripped of their citizenship, rejected by neighbouring countries, they are rendered stateless. No human being deserves to be treated this way. I therefore appeal for assistance: humanitarian aid, and political assistance to help us resolve this conflict. There is a need to bring Rakhine and Rohingya together, to bring them around a table, to bring voices of moderation and peace together to find a solution. Without this, the prospects for genuine peace and true freedom for my country will be denied, for no one can sleep easy at night knowing how one particular people group are dying simply due to their race and religion.
The situation in Rakhine state, while not by any means the only aspect of religious intolerance in Myanmar, is the most acute, most severe and most difficult to resolve. Whatever the perspectives – and there are, within my country, a variety of perspectives – about the origin of the Rohingya people, there cannot be doubt that those who have lived in Myanmar for generations have a right to be regarded as citizens, and that all of them deserve to be treated humanely and in accordance with international human rights. Seeing thousands of people living in dire, inhumane conditions in camps; seeing the segregation, the apartheid, that has been established in Sittwe; seeing thousands risk their lives at sea to escape these deplorable and unbearable conditions – this is not a basis for a stable, peaceful future for my country.
A related challenge is the conflict in the ethnic states. The majority of the Kachin, Chin, Naga and Karenni peoples, and a significant proportion of the Karen, are Christians – and over the decades of armed conflict, the military has turned religion into a tool of oppression. In Chin State, for example, Christian crosses have been destroyed and Chin Christians have been forced to construct Buddhist pagodas in their place. Last year, two Kachin Christian school teachers were raped and murdered. At least 66 churches in Kachin state have been destroyed since the conflict reignited in 2011.Many have been killed in Myanmar’s ethnic and religious conflicts; and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
“Many have been killed in Myanmar’s ethnic and religious conflicts; and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.”
I therefore urge the international community to encourage the new government to consider four practical steps to address the crisis in Rakhine.
- Take action to prevent hate speech;
- Ensure humanitarian access for all those, on both sides of the conflict, who have been displaced by immediately lifting all restrictions on the operations of international aid agencies and devoting more government resources to assisting IDPs and isolated villagers;
- Reform or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law, because the lack of full citizenship lies at the root of most of the discrimination faced by the Rohingya;
- And finally, establish a credible independent investigation with international experts to investigate the causes of the crisis in Rakhine state, and propose action.
There is hope today in Myanmar. My country is emerging from a long night of tears and sadness into a new dawn. But our young democracy is fragile, and human rights continue to be abused and violated. For ethnic and religious minorities, this is particularly true, and that is why I conclude by emphasising that no society can be truly democratic, free and peaceful if it does not respect – and even celebrate – political, racial and religious diversity, as well as protect the basic human rights of every single person, regardless of race, religion or gender. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. We are a rainbow nation, a nation of many different ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions. That is its beauty and it is something to be protected, defended, cherished and strengthened. The theme of “unity in diversity” – a phrase I believe St Paul himself coined, and a phrase I, having founded a religious order in Myanmar named after St Paul, hold dear – is a theme which the world desperately needs reminding of.
“I believe, truly, that key to inter-religious harmony and peace is that most basic of human rights, freedom of religion or belief for all.”
I look to our friends around the world, including here in Britain, to help my country ensure that every person in Myanmar, of whatever race or religion, has their rights protected, without discrimination. I believe, truly, that key to inter-religious harmony and peace is that most basic of human rights, freedom of religion or belief for all.
By His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo