For Burmese Bishops, the Church is a "force for peace" that can mediate on the path of reconciliation
by Paolo Fossati

The prelates are on their ad limina visit with Pope Francis, remembering the pontiff’s historic journey to their country. For Mgr Raymond Sumlut Gam, bishop of Banmaw, the pope’s "messages of love, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation have marked the path of the country". Meanwhile, fighting continues Kachin where the Church mediates between rebels and government forces. The situation of displaced persons, trapped in the jungle, is worrisome.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – "The Burmese Church is a force for peace, able to mediate conflicts and accompany the country in the process of reconciliation,” said Mgr Francis Daw Tang, bishop of Myitkyina (pictured 2 second from right), capital of the northern state of Kachin, where fighting continues between armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar military.

Together with his colleagues in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar (CBCM), he is in Rome for an ad limina visit. A few hours before their meeting with Pope Francis, some of the prelates spoke to AsiaNews about the impact of the pontiff’s historic apostolic journey to the country (27-30 November 2017) on the life of the local Church.

The unity Catholics showed during the visit was an example for everyone in Myanmar. Despite fresh tensions in Kachin, his words continue to resonate throughout the country. During his visit, Francis repeatedly called for peace and reconciliation, urging the faithful to reject the logic of revenge and  Church leaders to "to foster unity, charity and healing in the life of this nation".

"His messages of love, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation have marked the path of the country,” said Mgr Raymond Sumlut Gam, bishop of Banmaw (picture 1, left), another diocese in Kachin. “The people of Myanmar as a whole, not only Catholics, are no longer talking about peace alone. They know that to obtain it, it is necessary to include other aspects: love, forgiveness and reconciliation. People are now aware of a fuller concept of peace."

In Myanmar, 89.2 per cent of the population is Buddhist. Catholics number 675,745, just over 1 per cent of the population. Despite their small size, the success of the papal visit gave the various groups of Myanmar society an opportunity to see in them a credible and trustworthy interlocutor.

"Facilitated by the pope's meeting with the Supreme Sangha Council, the relationship between Catholicism and Buddhism has become friendlier,” Mgr Sumlut Gam explained. “Buddhist leaders know us better, and now there is greater understanding between us.”

The papal visit also changed relations with Myanmar’s powerful Armed Forces (Tatmadaw), which have been involved in a military offensive in recent months against the rebels of the KIA, the Kachin Independence Army (picture 1), which is the armed branch of the Kachin minority, a largely Christian group in which Catholics are about 40 per cent and Baptists 60 per cent.

The latest round of violent clashes broke out last January when government forces launched a series of air strikes against Tanaing, a KIA-controlled area.

More than 3,000 villagers near the cities of Injangyang, Tanaing and Hpakant were caught in the middle. Government soldiers blocked access to combat areas and prevented residents from leaving or receiving aid.

"Following the visit,” said the bishop of Banmaw, “we, the bishops of the State of Kachin, were able to meet the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, General Min Aung Hlaing. In a very cordial way, we discussed with him the prospects for peace in the region.”

“In the past, it was difficult for us to meet top military officials, even at the local level. Now it is different, and this is a very significant change. The military know that the Church is a trustworthy interlocutor, that it is not motivated by its own interests but by love for the people."

"When asked by the military, the Catholic Church takes on the role of mediator between the parties,” noted Bishop Daw Tang. “Recently, even though the commander of the Northern Division did not want to talk to Baptist leaders but only with Catholics, I felt it was right to meet with them (the Baptists) and discuss the issues they consider most urgent, before participating in talks with the military. By the same token, after meeting the commander, I spoke to the Baptists about what we had discussed."

The situation of displaced persons is of great concern to Burmese bishops. Yesterday, the military allowed government officials to evacuate 125 displaced people from Kamaing. The operation follows a one-day evacuation operation involving 22 people from the same village. The Church is carefully following the evolution of the situation and is trying to lend concrete help.

"In Myitkyina we organised at least seven meetings, including one with Red Cross, to rescue those who were trapped in the jungle,” Mgr Francis Daw Tang said. “However, the rebels did not give us precise indications on the position of displaced persons, so we gave up.”

"It is important to respect their will and wait for them to coordinate with us. If we cannot get a green light from the military and KIA, operations would become very dangerous. There are mines everywhere, laid by both sides. This is why it is essential to mediate between them."