06/19/2015, 00.00
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For Catholic activist, federalism and religious freedom should be part of Myanmar’s democratic development

by Francis Khoo Thwe
CSW East Asia team leader Benedict Rogers has recently carried out a mission in the country, where many issues remain unresolved, from the Myanmar government’s responsibility in the Rohingya crisis to the violence by Buddhist extremists. Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China marks her transition from human rights icon to political leader. Myanmar’s Catholic Church contributes to peace and reconciliation.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Many issues will shape Myanmar’s upcoming parliamentary election. Scheduled for later this year, this poll is the second since the military dictatorship ended. However, unlike 2011, this time Myanmar’s main pro-democracy party will be able to participate fully.

The issues that top the political agenda include the Rohingya crisis, which has gone from a domestic problem to a regional one; Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China as part of her strategy to gain political acceptance and overcome Beijing’s past hostility towards her pro-democracy party; rising nationalism among some Buddhists; and the countervailing work by the local Catholic Church in favour of peace and reconciliation, starting in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities torn by decades of conflict.

To explore these issues, AsiaNews spoke with Benedict Rogers, a journalist and human rights activist originally from London. As the East Asia Team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), he is a leading expert on Myanmar, where in 2013 he converted to Catholicism in Yangon Cathedral.

He has visited the Asian nation more than 50 times in recent years, travelling to Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw as well as states inhabited by minorities like Kachin, Chin and Shan.

The activist has just completed a new mission in Myanmar and wanted to share with us his impressions. Here is his interview with AsiaNews:

The Rohingya problem is back. Once a domestic issue, it has now become a regional issue. Is there a parallel between the refugee emergency in Asia and events in the Mediterranean?

It is extraordinary that simultaneously we are seeing a humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing on boats in both Asia and Europe. There are certainly stark parallels between the two situations, including the reluctance of countries in both regions to help provide sanctuary for these refugees. In regard to the situation in Burma, the root cause of the crisis is the desperate persecution of the Rohingyas, who have been stripped of citizenship and of any basic human rights, exist in dire conditions in camps for displaced people with little humanitarian assistance, and are subjected to a dehumanising campaign of hatred.

Is the Myanmar government, as someone said, the main culprit for this emergency?

The Burmese government is certainly responsible, though there are of course elements within society who are involved as well. If the Burmese government took steps to recognise the citizenship of the Rohingyas, begin a process of reconciliation between the Rohingyas and Rakhine, tackle hate speech, and protect the basic human rights of the Rohingyas, it would go a long way towards resolving the crisis.

On the subject of civil society and religions, can we say that some elements in Burmese Buddhism are becoming extremist?

There is certainly a serious problem of extremism in Burmese Buddhism, or more accurately, we should say Buddhist nationalism. It is of course a total perversion of Buddhism itself, which as a religion teaches love, compassion, peace and non-violence, but unfortunately, there is a movement in Burma – as there is in Sri Lanka – which has distorted the beautiful principles of Buddhism and turned it into a politicised religious nationalism that confuses religion with race and identity. It is a movement that seeks to impose its extreme religious nationalism on the country, through violence, discrimination and legislation, and oppresses primarily Muslims, but also Buddhists who try to counter it, and potentially Christians and other non-Buddhist minorities.

In addition to religious nationalism, ethnic minorities (Kachin, Chin, Kokang) remain an issue. Can we really believe in government-sponsored talks?

On the question of trust, clearly decades of war and broken promises and brutal oppression have eroded trust in the government and the army. Even now, it appears that the government and the army want peace only on their terms. If that is the case, peace will not be achieved. However, is lasting peace possible? Yes it is, if the government and the army sincerely build trust with the ethnic nationalities. This must include the army observing the terms of any ceasefire agreed; withdrawing troops from ethnic areas; and beginning a political dialogue to seek a political solution. Withdrawing troops is vital in my opinion, because for decades, the Burma Army has perpetrated serious human rights abuses against ethnic civilians, including rape and forced labour, and civilians will feel vulnerable if Burma Army soldiers remain close to their villages even if there is a ceasefire. A political dialogue must lead to the establishment of a federal democracy in which the ethnic nationalities are given some degree of autonomy. A genuine, lasting peace can only be achieved through a political settlement.

In political terms, Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visit to China marks a turning point for her (She turns 70 today). Once an iconic defender of rights, she has become the leader of a party and one day she might be the leader of a nation . . .

It is obviously important for the National League for Democracy (NLD) to establish constructive relations with China, if the NLD is to hold some political power in Burma after the elections later this year. China is too big and too important a neighbour to ignore, and although it has historically backed successive regimes and is no friend of democracy, it is in the NLD's interests at least to neutralise China's negative influence by building relations. Very clearly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician, as she has said herself, and her focus currently is on the forthcoming elections in Burma.

In such a complex framework, what role does the Catholic Church play in Myanmar?

The Catholic Church definitely has an important role to play and can indeed contribute to reconciliation. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has been perhaps the most consistently and courageously outspoken national leader in Burma, not only among religious leaders but among any public figures, as a voice for human rights, religious freedom, inter-religious harmony and ethnic peace for all the peoples of Burma. When he was appointed Cardinal earlier this year, many Burmese Buddhists and Muslims described him as "our Cardinal". As a result of his leadership, and the Church's contribution to society over many years through education, health care and other social justice issues, Catholics are respected in Burma and have an important contribution to make to nation building.

Is there an image, a face, an event that has marked your last trip to Myanmar?

Although there are very grave concerns over the rise of religious intolerance, it is also encouraging to note that there are a growing number of civil society actors and religious leaders, including Buddhist monks, who are trying to counter intolerance and promote religious freedom and inter-religious harmony. Their work is difficult and challenging, but vital. There is a real appetite for workshops, seminars and training on religious freedom and inter-faith harmony, and I have been privileged to be involved with several such initiatives. Working to strengthen the voice of those Buddhist monks who want to promote peace and harmony and counter hatred and intolerance is especially important. In February this year, I organised an exchange between religious freedom activists from Burma with counterparts in Indonesia, and in one visit to an Islamic boarding school in West Java, Indonesia, there was a beautiful moment when the Burmese Buddhist monk and the Indonesian Muslim leader embraced, hugged. This was followed more recently by a moment when, at the end of a workshop I gave in Mandalay, a Burmese Buddhist monk came and hugged me. These symbolic images represent hope for the future.

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