01/22/2015, 00.00
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Peace and reconciliation, challenges for Burmese Catholics

by Pau Lian Cin
The Church has celebrated its first 500 years, but Christians are a minority: 5 per cent of the population. Prejudices against a religion seen as "foreign" remain, as do unresolved problems left over from colonial days. This requires a look at past mistakes, as well as a rethink of the mission and the proclamation of the Gospel. Here is the first part of the analysis by a Burmese priest and scholar.

hierarYangon (AsiaNews) - Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist nation. Since 2012, it has witnessed a wave of sectarian violence that left so far at least 300 people dead and 140,000 displaced. Most of them are Muslim Rohingyas, from the western state of Rakhine, epicentre of the violence, victims of Buddhist extremists.

In a situation characterised by high ethnic and religious tensions, Catholics can make a great contribution to "nation building" in the fields of education and health care, said Mgr Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon and a newly appointed cardinal.

However, even Christians and the Catholic Church - which has recently celebrated 500 years in the country - still face unresolved issues with the Buddhist majority, the legacy of a colonial past that has led many Burmese to associate Christianity, first to Portuguese, then British domination.

Below we propose the first part of the analysis by a Burmese priest and scholar.

Although the Catholic Church in Myanmar has just celebrated 500 years of the presence of the Christian faith in Myanmar, the Christian population is only 5 per cent out of the total population of Myanmar (52.4 million). Thus, Christians are still a minority in the country. Therefore, one can ask: Is the Christian population increasing or decreasing in Myanmar? This may be a good and practical question.

We can give a very short answer 'yes'. It is increasing more than before, but it is not satisfactory because, for a Christian, life in Myanmar is like being a stranger in his own house.

For instance, as one Anglican put it, prejudices against Christians are even stronger, for, according to the 'mantra' of national identity, "To be Burmese is to be Buddhist". If this is the case, "Who are we? We are aliens in our own country. We are seen as traitors." Such words express a deep hurt, because Burmese Christians do not see themselves as aliens and certainly not as traitors.

Simon Pau Khan En, a professor at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, noted that "Christianity was and still is an alien religion to the people of Myanmar due to three important factors: (a) identification of the Christian mission with colonialism; (b) the negative attitude of missionaries towards the religion and culture of the people; and (c) the conversion en masse of tribal groups to Christianity".

These factors are the consequence of the country's wounded history and of the weakness in interpreting the Gospel to the people of Myanmar. In order to remove or overcome these estrangements, the Churches in Myanmar have to look back into the past and transform their ways of proclaiming the Gospel among the people, especially among the Buddhist majority in Myanmar.

1. Past historical wounds

In Myanmar, the reasons for the tensions between Buddhists and other religions (especially Christians) are the results of the wounded memories of the past. What is more, different ethno-religious groups who are affected by these historical wounds and prejudices.

The first wounds came during the reign of King Maha-dhamma-yaza, the grandson of Bayinnaung (also called Braginoco in Portuguese), whose military conquests led to the establishment of the most powerful empire in mainland Southeast Asia. One of the most notable figures of that time was Filipe de Brito, a Portuguese adventurer who established himself as governor of Syriam (southern Burma). Here he built a church, and then, in Portuguese fashion, proceeded to outrage local feelings by destroying pagodas and forcing people to become Christian.

The second came in 1885 when the last Burmese monarch, King Thibaw, was overthrown on 28 November, placing the whole of Upper Myanmar under British rule. He had succeeded King Mindon (1853-1878) who had maintained control.

Lower Myanmar had already been under British control. Here British rulers made a clean sweep of the old monarchical system, abolishing not only the Buddhist court but also the Buddhist ecclesiastical commissions with their primate's authorities, including many other traditional local institutions such as Circle headmen.

The Burmese people in Lower Myanmar of that time feared that their centuries-old ways of life, monastery education, and their Buddhist faith would swiftly disappear under the alien rule.

These fears grew when the British government refused to grant patronage to Buddhism and approval to monastery schools, which served as the keystone of the Buddhist educational system.

Some Buddhist monastery schools in Lower Myanmar were replaced by Christian missionary facilities with English as the language of education. This caused great pain to Burmese Buddhists.

This replacement process began to take place right after the British abolished the monarchy, and dis-established the traditional bases of the Buddhist community and monastery education.

With the abolition of the highest Buddhist Council (Sangha) and the elimination of the legitimate status of Buddhism as the official religion, the traditional monarchical bases of the Buddhist community and monastery education began to collapse.

Such an institutional collapse meant a great achievement for British colonisers who arrogantly claimed, "We have overthrown the king and destroyed all traces of the kingly rule. Naturally they [the Burmese] look upon this as the destruction of their nationality. Whether we have acted wisely history will decide."

This endangered the very existence of Burmese Buddhists. For Burmese Buddhists, the dis-establishment of Buddhist monarchical rule and monastery education system meant the total loss of national-religious solidarity and the destruction of their integrated social, cultural and political systems.

In fact, the replacement of monastery-based Buddhist education by British and Christian missionary education caused painful feelings among Burmese Buddhists who then accused the Christian mission of being part of the colonial movement.

By 1930, attacks on missionary education reached a climax. That year, Buddhist students at the Cushing High School, the Baptist Normal School in Yangon, and the Methodist Boys' High School in Mandalay went on strike, claiming that they were not allowed to go to Buddhist pagodas on special Buddhist holidays and were forced to attend Christian Bible classes.

On learning of this situation, Buddhist nationalists looked upon the Christian mission, especially its educational work, with suspicion, as part and parcel of the White Man's 3 M-scheme (Merchant, Military and Mission), which was strongly supported by the British government and Christian missionaries, especially during the nationalist period of the 1930s.

(End of Part One)

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