As international criticism mounts for Burmese leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi over perceived inaction on the nation's Rohingya refugee crisis, Catholic bishops say they support her, fearing too much pressure could lead to a collapse of their newly-formed democracy, which is still struggling to take root.
“We need to really rebuild our nation,” said Fr Mariano Soe Naing, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Burma. He noted that even two years ago, it would not have been possible for the bishops to be vocal about their stand given the tumultuous political climate.
“We are only here (because of) the lives that have been shed on the streets, so we have gone through such a struggle in this country and we cannot compromise the lives, the blood, that this country has given,” he said. “We need to go on with our democratic reform of this nation.”
Fr. Soe Naing spoke to journalists at a press briefing on the second full day of Pope Francis' Nov. 27-30 visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar. The Pope will next travel to Bangladesh Nov. 30-Dec. 2 before returning to Rome.
The visit comes at a precarious time for Burma as it continues to struggle in transitioning to democracy. Burma functioned as a military dictatorship for more than 50 years, until democratic reforms began taking root in 2011. In November 2015, Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, were elected by an overwhelming majority, putting an end to a five-decade military dictatorship.
Suu Kyi and her party had also won the election in 1990, but the results were not recognized by the military government, and she was put under house arrest. However, despite her success in 2015, she is still barred from officially becoming president, and holds the title of “State Counselor” and Foreign Minister, while a close associate is acting as president.
Despite emerging signs of democratic reform in Burma, the transition has been rocky. The military still wields considerable political authority, including the appointment of cabinet ministers, and one-quarter of the nation’s legislature.
Compounding the issue, the Pope's visit also takes place amid a sharp increase in state-supported violence against the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State, prompting the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country, many of the Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, with millions camping along the border as refugees. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Burma for Bangladesh in recent months.
However, despite widespread use of the term “Rohingya” in the international community, the term is controversial within Burma. The Burmese government refuses to use the term, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship since Burma gained independence in 1948.
In many ways this crisis has overshadowed the Pope Francis' trip, the first-ever visit from a Pope to the Asian nation. Specific attention has been paid to whether or not Francis will use the term “Rohingya” while on Burmese soil. So far, he has refrained, upon the request of the country's Catholic leaders.
In the Nov. 29 news briefing, Vatican Spokesman Greg Burke said while the topic of migrants and refugees is a major concern for Pope Francis, the plight of the Rohingya “was not the original intention for making the trip.”
Differing from the Pope's 2016 daytrip to the Greek island of Lesbos, which Burke described as a “refugee trip,” the visit to Burma was made as an official visit to a country with whom the Holy See has just established diplomatic relations, and the refugee crisis happened to escalate at the same time.
The decision to officially form diplomatic ties was made in March, and relations were further cemented in May when Suu Kyi visited Pope Francis at the Vatican, with both leaders agreeing to send ambassadors to each other’s countries.
With Catholic bishops in Burma backing Suu Kyi and her government, the decision to establish ties and schedule a papal visit so soon after was likely made in a bid to support democracy in the country amid fears it could crumble under too much pressure from both inside and outside of the country.
In his first speech of the trip, given to Burmese authorities and diplomats Nov. 28, the Pope said healing and peace in the nation can only be achieved through the pursuit of justice and the promotion of human rights.
He also advocated for “the consolidation of democracy and the growth of unity and peace at every level of society.” He further advanced the cause of democracy in his speech to bishops earlier today, during which he told them to spread the Gospel through charity and the “support for democratic rule.”
In the lead-up to Francis' visit, the heat has been turned up on Suu Kyi, with many claiming the leader isn't doing enough to defend the Rohingya.
On Monday the Oxford City Council voted to strip Suu Kyi of her “Freedom of Oxford” award over what they said was a failure to speak out on abuses committed against the Rohingya. She was initially given the award in 1997 and collected it personally in 2012 after 15 years of house arrest.
However, the bishops have continued to support Suu Kyi. In a September statement, they called for an end to persecution of the Rohingya, while also emphasizing the complicated nature of the political, military, and humanitarian situation in the country, and saying that lasting reform will take time and that placing sole blame on Suu Kyi is counterproductive.
“Thousands of citizens went on the street against the socialist government and gave their lives on the streets of Yangon,” Fr. Soe Naing said at the press conference. “So we cannot just forget all these struggles to have a democratic transition in this country.”
And this democracy is now in danger again, the priest said, explaining that when Suu Kyi is criticized, the pressure comes in two ways: “the international community and the people in the country.”
He argued that the leader, and therefore democracy, is suffering as some criticize her on the Rohingya front, while others use her weakened public standing as an opportunity question the benefits of democracy for Burmese society.
Soe Naing said “we have to come up with a clear stand that we are for development of the country. We have just 18 months of her rule and then we met this crisis, and she is under pressure from all sides,” so the Church is eager to provide support.
Also present at the press conference was Bishop Hsane Hgyi, Vice President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Burma (CBCM); Bishop Felix Liankhenthang, President of the CBCM; and Bishop John Saw Yaw Han, auxiliary bishop of Yangon.
In comments to journalists, Bishop Hgyi stressed the importance of both knowing and focusing on the truth on the political situation.
“We know Aung Sun Suu Kyi has been sacrificing and suffering for many years, not for herself and not for her family, but for her country,” he said, and cautioned against believing everything that's read in the papers.
People ought to look for authoritative sources, he said, and suggested that critics “go into the field to study the reality and study the history well” before speaking, because “just hearing from other people won't be enough.”
When asked whether there is fear that the Rohingya might be disappointed that Pope Francis has decided not to use the term during his visit to Burma, Burke said “Vatican diplomacy is not infallible,” and that everyone is entitled to form their own opinion on the matter.
“That's part of what diplomatic work is about,” he said, explaining that the main goal of the Holy See is “building bridges” in a nation with which they are just starting to form diplomatic relations.
“We're in the start of a relationship. The Holy See only recently began full diplomatic relations here, it's a very tiny Church,” Burke said, adding while the Pope “is very persuasive” and enjoys great moral authority, “he doesn't parachute” into regions to solve problems immediately, but takes things one step at a time.