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Why is the Vatican establishing diplomatic relations with Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi


Diane Montagna - published on 05/05/17

Amid allegations of ethnic cleansing and grave human rights violations, the Church’s voice needs to be heard in the corridors of power in Naypidaw

VATICAN CITY — The Holy See and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) have agreed to establish diplomatic relations, the Vatican announced on Thursday.

“Keen to promote bonds of mutual friendship,” the two nations “have jointly agreed to establish diplomatic relations at the level of Apostolic Nunciature, on behalf of the Holy See, and Embassy, on the part of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” a Vatican statement issued May 4 said.

The announcement follows a private audience granted yesterday by Pope Francis to Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and Union Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar.

But the groundwork for the joint agreement was laid on February 8, when Bishop Paul Tsang in-Nam, Apostolic Nuncio in Thailand and Apostolic Delegate to Myanmar, submitted a formal proposal to Burmese government to establish diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of Myanmar. The proposal was unanimously accepted by Burmese deputies on March 10.

During yesterday’s private audience, the establishment of diplomatic relations was then formally approved by both parties.

This is not the first time Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi have met. On October 28, 2013, Francis granted an audience to Suu Kyi, but at the time she was serving as the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy party and held no official state office. Then spokesman for the Holy See, Fr. Federico Lombardi, said at the time that their first meeting was an opportunity to recall that interreligious dialogue was “a fundamental key for peaceful coexistence among peoples.”

With the Vatican announcement to establish diplomatic relations with Myanmar, only 13 states remain that do not maintain bilateral diplomatic relations with the Holy See: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bhutan, Brunei, China, Comoros, North Korea, Laos, Maldives, Oman, Somalia, Tuvalu and Vietnam. Conversely, the Vatican now maintains diplomatic relations with 182 states.

Why are the Holy See and Myanmar establishing diplomatic relations now? And what does it mean for the Burmese people, particularly for ethnic minorities?

Aleteia spoke with Benedict Rogers, a writer, journalist and human rights advocate specializing in Asia. Based in London, Rogers serves as the East Asia Team Leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide. His work has taken him to North Korea, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, East Timor, Burma and beyond.

But Rogers’ personal journey also passes through Burma. In 2013, on Palm Sunday, he was received into the Catholic Church in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon (Myanmar’s largest city) by Cardinal Charles Bo (then Archbishop of Yangon). For ten years, Rogers worked closely with Cardinal Bo, who inspired him greatly in his faith. His story is told in his book ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church.’

In this interview with Aleteia, Benedict Rogers discusses the significance of the Holy See’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Myanmar. He also explains why it is a sign of hope for the Burmese people, and he details the grave violations against human rights and religious liberty which ethnic minorities in Myanmar have suffered for decades, and which still continue today.

The Holy See has announced its intent to establish diplomatic relations with Myanmar. Why do you believe this is happening now? And why is it significant?

The last few years have seen several significant developments for the Church in Myanmar – the celebration of 500 years of the Church’s presence in the country, the beatification of Myanmar’s first ‘Blessed’ on the way to sainthood, Blessed Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, the appointment of Myanmar’s first-ever Cardinal, Cardinal Charles Bo, and a number of other key events. And at the same time Myanmar is undergoing a political transition, in which over five decades of military dictatorship have ended and a fragile democracy is being built, resulting in the election of a civilian-led, democratically-elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

That democracy is still in its infancy, the military remain very powerful, both constitutionally and in society, and conflict, religious intolerance and other very grave human rights violations continue, so the situation is fragile, but that is where the Church can be a force for good. It therefore seems the right time to establish direct diplomatic relations.

It is significant because it will strengthen the influence of the Church in the country. The Church, and in particular Cardinal Bo, is a powerful and outspoken voice for human rights, justice, freedom and peace for all the peoples of Myanmar, of all ethnicities and religions, and the Church is one of the few institutions in Myanmar that truly reflects the ethnic diversity of the country. Pope Francis has spoken out for the rights of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya people on several occasions, as has Cardinal Bo. Having direct relations will enable the Church to do more.

You have been on the forefront of reporting on human rights violations and conflict, and fighting for religious freedom in Burma. What are your hopes for the country in light of the Holy See’s announcement to establish diplomatic relations with Myanmar?

My hopes are that the Church’s voice for peace, human rights and human dignity for all the peoples of Myanmar, of all races and religions, will be strengthened as a result, and will be heard in the corridors of power in Naypidaw.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the region, what have the people of Myanmar been suffering in terms of violations against human rights and religious freedom?

Myanmar is just emerging from over five decades of military rule and over sixty years of civil war. The military continues to be very powerful. Although ceasefires have been agreed in some parts of the country with some ethnic armed resistance groups, a brutal war continues in Kachin and northern Shan states in the north of the country, resulting in all the gross violations of human rights which the ethnic minorities of Myanmar have suffered for decades: killing of civilians, destruction of villages, destruction of churches, rape as a weapon of war, severe torture, arbitrary arrests and detention.

Religious intolerance has risen in recent years, primarily a result of a Burman, Buddhist ultra-nationalist movement which has led a horrific campaign of hate speech and violence against Muslims. The Rohingyas are among the most persecuted people on earth and are enduring an appalling humanitarian crisis which has been condemned by the UN.

Can you say more?

The UN is investigating potential crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Earlier this year the United Nations issued a report documenting killings, mass gang-rapes, brutal beatings and disappearances.

The UN report draws on interviews with 204 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh, most of whom witnessed killings. Almost half reported having a family member killed. Of the 101 women interviewed by UN investigators, more than half said they had been raped. Young children were killed in front of their parents. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, “The devastating cruelty to which these children have been subjected is unbearable. What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk? And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her—what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this? . . . The killing of people as they prayed, fished to feed their families, the brutal beating of children as young as two and an elderly woman aged 80—the perpetrators of these violations, and those who ordered them, must be held accountable.”

In December, 23 international figures, including 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates and several former prime ministers, warned that the situation “has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies—Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.”

As Cardinal Bo put it so movingly: “The plight of the Rohingyas is an appalling scar on the conscience of my country. They are among the most marginalized, dehumanized and persecuted people in the world. They are treated worse than animals. Stripped of their citizenship, rejected by neighboring countries, they are rendered stateless. No human being deserves to be treated this way.” A just, fair settlement that enables all the peoples of Rakhine state to live in peace must be found.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi faces criticism for not acting, but this is not entirely fair. She established an advisory commission chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to investigate the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine State and provide solutions. Among the ways forward are three practical steps: take action to prevent hate speech; ensure humanitarian access for all those, on both sides of the conflict, who have been displaced by immediately lifting all restrictions on the operations of international aid agencies and devoting more government resources to assisting IDPs and isolated villagers; reform or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law, because the lack of full citizenship lies at the root of most of the discrimination faced by the Rohingya.

But it is not only the Rohingyas. Anti-Muslim violence and discrimination has spread throughout the country, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal adviser and prominent Muslim activist U Ko Ni assassinated very publicly at Yangon airport earlier this year. New laws were introduced under the previous government that restrict religious conversions and inter-faith marriages. In Kachin and northern Shan states, the war has resulted in the displacement of over 150,000 civilians.

Last December a Catholic church in northern Shan State was bombed and subsequently two Kachin Christian pastors, Nawng Latt and Gam Seng, were arrested after taking journalists to the bombed church to gather evidence.

Even Lahpai Gam, a Kachin prisoner arrested by the Burma Army five years ago and jailed, and whom the UN working group on arbitrary detention concludes is held arbitrarily and in violation of international law, remains in prison. He has been severely beaten from head to toe with an iron rod, forced to engage in sexual acts with another male prisoner, and forced to stand for hours with his arms outstretched as if being crucified. He has severe health problems as a result of the torture he endured, and human rights organizations are calling for his urgent release on medical grounds. At least 200 political prisoners remain in prison.

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