In Myanmar, religious leaders are called to be peace builders

RELIGIONS FOR PEACE-Myanmar has issued an appeal signed by the country’s religious leaders in connection with elections scheduled for November. The document is entitled “Seize the opportunity!” and it was published July 13, 2020. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) interviewed Auxiliary Bishop John Saw Yaw Han of Yangon, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, about the importance of this document and the role of interreligious dialogue in the country.

All the Burmese Catholic bishops, as well as the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu leadership have signed the text. Why is this document so important?

Pope Francis' visit to Myanmar (2017)
Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar (2017)

Religion is a sensitive issue in Myanmar. In Myanmar, politically motivated religious violence has very ancient roots and far-reaching consequences. Religious intolerance is often manifested in hostile acts denouncing or ridiculing the religious values of a particular religion. The country has already experienced extreme violence because of religious issues, resulting in many deaths. The rise in religious fanaticism and negative indoctrination is disturbing. Sometimes, religion is used for social dominance and the protection of economic and political interests by a small group of individuals. For them, conflict and violence are necessary to de-stabilize the country and to deter outside investors. With little competition, only these individuals control the economy, which leads to lack of development and poverty.

That is why the document is so important. What the people need is to live together in harmony and in peaceful coexistence. “The spirit of the document” itself is valuable and most important, for it shows the desire and will of our religious leaders for the good of the people of Myanmar. It will have a definite influence on the people and lead to the reduction of tension. Light conquers darkness!

What is the most important point in the document?
Religious Leaders have pointed out, rightly, that “religious leaders are too timid in protesting injustice.” This is the most striking and important point. For many decades, some religious leaders sided with the powerful and ignored the oppressed. The religious leaders need to find a prophetic voice and moral courage in fighting against injustice, in building up peace. This coming election is very important because it involves a choice between the old system, with its exclusive culture, and an inclusive culture.

Presently, Myanmar’s transition to democracy is undergoing a series of violent conflicts. But Myanmar is on the cusp of major reforms. However, we are still in the process of uprooting the old system. In this uprooting process, religious leaders play a crucial role.

With sensible leadership and the articulation of a democratically smart vision—allowing diversity of religion, culture, and ethnic identity, along with re-education and re-orientation at every level—Myanmar could become a beacon of religious and ethnic inclusion.

What is the contribution of the Catholic Church to interreligious dialogue in Myanmar?
All Catholics, as citizens of Myanmar, are also responsible for their country. It would be wrong for us, as Catholics and as citizens of Myanmar, to fail to be engaged in the struggle for the greatest nation-building of our time. In critical times, it becomes the duty of all citizens to raise their voice for the common good. Finally, if all human beings have rights, the same holds true for obligations. Therefore, though Catholics are a minority in Myanmar, under the leadership and guidance of Cardinal Bo, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) plays an important role in nation-building.

In the wake of the 2015 election, CBCM drew up a five-year strategic plan for nation-building with a special emphasis on education and integral human development, indigenous rights and environmental justice, the rights of women, and collaboration with other denominations and religions for the sake of peace.

The Episcopal Commission for Inter-Religious Dialogue and Ecumenism is aiming to collaborate with peoples of all faiths. The commission plays an important role at the grass-root level, while Religions for Peace (RfP) plays a role at the international level.

What other challenges to interreligious dialogue does your country face? The most popular social media platform in Myanmar is Facebook. However, there are still many fake accounts on Facebook with the intention of spreading fake news, hate speech and incitements, which trigger religious conflicts and violence. There may be political reasons and economic interests behind this. The Facebook team and the Ministry of Information are taking charge of removing and eliminating all the fake accounts/posts which spread hate speech. But we still need to do it more effectively.

Bishop John Saw Yaw Han (l) and Buddhist dialogue partner
Bishop John Saw Yaw Han (l) and Buddhist dialogue partner

What has the 2017 papal visit brought to the local Church?
Thanks to the papal visit, the Catholic Church gained a different profile from that of other Christian denominations. The Catholic Church is now more respected than in the past and some rights have also been granted. We were able to build closer collaboration with Buddhists and other religions in the effort of peace building. Love, peace and harmony were key messages of the papal visit. Burmese Catholics were greatly encouraged by the visit and their faith was strengthened.

—Maria Lozano