In Conversation with Myanmar’s First Cardinal

By Yan Pai 15 May 2015

Archbishop of Yangon Charles Maung Bo was named Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal by Pope Francis in January this year and was officially elevated by the pope in March in Rome. Cardinal Bo recently sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Yan Pai to discuss the role of religious leaders in achieving peace and promoting tolerance in Myanmar.

How do you feel about being named Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal?

I did not expect to be chosen; cardinals are usually chosen from places like the Philippines and Italy where the majority of people are Catholic Christians. But the Pope of his own volition chose a cardinal from Myanmar, where the Catholic population is small. He did so with the intention of encouraging the international community to give assistance to poor, undeveloped and troubled countries. Though I am happy to be appointed as a cardinal, I also take it as an important responsibility. The sense of responsibility I feel, that I have to try and be an example for my country and my people, is stronger than the happiness the position has brought me.

What do you plan to do to improve the future of the country?

Firstly, we can’t turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to difficulties, racial and religious conflicts, the wishes of the people and particularly the recent student protests Myanmar has faced in marching toward democracy. We have to make sure we all face [these issues] in good faith. Though the majority of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, it is a multi-faith country and I therefore want to offer my services to ensure peaceful co-existence between people of different faiths and peace between ethnic groups and the government.

Are you now closely involved in settling conflicts between the government and ethnic groups?

Generally, many members of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) believe in the same faith as me. So I have played a part in those cases as much as I can, together with Catholic priests there. I have decided to play a part whenever there is an opportunity. For example, I took part in many discussions on Rakhine issues and so did US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell.

I believe spiritual leaders have an important role to play in either racial or religious conflicts. Myanmar people have faith in their respective religions and listen to their respective religious leaders. I believe that it would have a great impact on people in the country if spiritual leaders met frequently and showed respect to each other. Therefore, I have put forward a plan to build an office where spiritual leaders of different faiths can meet.

What is the government’s response to the involvement of religious leaders in the Kachin conflict? Do they welcome it?

We four Catholic Christian priests, Baptist bishops and local authorities in Kachin State meet frequently. But I don’t understand why the army does not stop attacks while the government, the President, has ordered to stop the fighting with the KIA. I don’t know who is behind the central government. Neither the army nor the president can make a firm decision. I have a suspicion that someone is secretly pulling the strings behind the president. Though it is said that we are moving toward a democracy and are enjoying freedoms, it is still difficult to find out who is pulling the strings from behind.

What do you want to say to the people about peace as a cardinal?

Conflicts have broken out and continued between ethnic groups and the government since independence. Ceasefires were reached in the early years when the military regime came to power. But ethnic armed groups still do not have trust in the central government. In addition, they have grievances. In my opinion, negotiation is the only solution. Therefore, I think credible political dialogue is critically important. Myanmar is bound to achieve peace if this happens.

You said the role of religious leaders is important in solving religious conflicts. What do you want to say about some monks taking part in religious conflicts at times?

Religion is meant to teach love and therefore does not accept violence. All religions have extremists. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all have extremists. But they are a minority. We condemn anyone with extreme views who only cares about his religion and disregards other religions. Violence will never win and never has a good ending. It is unacceptable. Love will win finally. Therefore, religious leaders need to preach love and respect to others who do not believe in different religions. Buddhists account for 85 percent of the population in Myanmar and while most [monks] are preaching love, if there is counterproductive violence, then it is unacceptable, I would say.

Do you think there is increased violence while the country is heading toward democracy, as you said?

Previously, the military regime imposed strict censorship, from publications to communication. Now, as we begin to get a greater degree of freedom, people think they can do and say anything they please and it is democracy. So they say, write and swear as they please in dealing with people of different religions. For example, they write and swear as they please on Facebook and think it is democracy. As the entire system was paralyzed in Myanmar, it is difficult to heal in a short time. Therefore it is important that we have patience and treat each other like family members in moving toward democracy.

We have heard that you will claim back nationalized missionary schools from the government. How is this going?

It has been 50 years since missionary schools were nationalized. The educational standards of Myanmar began to fall after missionary schools were nationalized. Whether in education or the economy, decentralization is very important. If the government decentralized the education system, we would be able to improve educational standards through cooperation between academics, local and international donors and religious personalities. But if the government continues to keep its grip, the education system will be hopeless. It should denationalize the schools.

It is now over 500 years since Christianity reached Myanmar. Looking back at history, princes were taught at those schools since the time of the monarchy. They did not take advantage; they only taught about morals and ethics. They did not persuade students to convert religion. So, the schools should be given back, I think. Last November, I said clearly that I would like to get them back if I had the chance.

How about religious freedom under the current government?

I have never faced direct disturbance and repression as regards religious freedom since the time of the government of the Burma Socialist Program Party. Even religious training has freedom. In my life, I have never been questioned if I have foreign contacts. But there is one thing. I feel we don’t have equality in terms of rights. It is rare that the government donates to Christian churches. I have never received any money [from the government] to build a church or for a mission. It is very different. We don’t even enjoy [government assistance] proportionally. I want the government to provide a certain amount even if it is not as large as the amount for Buddhists. Compared to countries like China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia, we have much greater religious rights in Myanmar. When a priest is appointed by Rome, he can be elevated freely in Myanmar. And we don’t need to seek the approval of the government unlike those countries. Again, seminaries for priests can be opened freely in Myanmar.

When you met Pope Francis, did he say something specific about Myanmar?

At the elevation ceremony, Pope Francis said that although Catholic Christians are a religious minority in Myanmar, they should have the courage to speak up for the truth and denounce injustice and should be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the truth and for love if necessary.

Is there anything else that you would like to say to the people of Myanmar?

Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country and has the beauty of diversity, like a rainbow. I wish peace not only for Myanmar but for the entire world. Peace is a precondition for development. People in Myanmar are like family members and if they have a brotherly spirit toward each other regardless of religion, then peace will prevail. I believe the final victory is of love.

This interview originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.