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Georg Evers {*}

Hope for Change

Politics and Churches in Burma

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2012, P. 208-214
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    For some time signals have been coming from Burma that the military dictatorship reduces the strictness of its rule. There begin to emerge not least also improvements in the relations to ethnic minorities. The Christian churches, all in all a minority in a country that is moulded by Buddhism, play an unusually active role in the current change.

 

Burma is a multi-ethnic country with 54 million inhabitants, who belong to more than 135 different ethnic groups. This figure is based on estimates, since the last census was held in Burma in 1983. According to it the population of Burma was at that time by 35 million inhabitants. A new census, which is planned for 2014, has to provide more accurate data. With 73 percent of the population, the Burmans are the largest population group. With 8.5 percent the Shan are in second place, followed by the Karen at 6.2 percent, the Chin 2.2 at percent, and the Kachin at 1.4 percent. The number of Chinese amounts to 1 to 2 percent and that of Indians to 1 percent.

Since the political independence of Burma in 1948, the country is torn by violent clashes of individual ethnic groups with the central government. In the so-called "Panglong Agreement" of the negotiations for independence in 1947, one had promised the various ethnic minorities, which inhabit almost 60 percent of the mountainous regions of Burma, cultural and ethnic independence and full autonomy in the administration of their regions within a federal nation-state Burma. The central government has never complied with these assurances. This led to constant revolts and struggles of ethnic minorities with the troops of the Central Government. These struggles resulted in enormous human and material losses on both sides. None of the warring parties was able clearly to prevail.

 

Political Reforms since March 2011

In recent months the country at the Indian Ocean, which is called Birma or Burma, and officially known as Myanmar, was often present in the media. If reports on this country were made in the past, then they were mostly about human rights violations and corruption. For example in September 2007, when there were large protests, primarily organized by students and Buddhist monks, against the ruling military junta. These protest, which were called "Saffron Revolution" according to the color of monks' robes, were bludgeoned with brutal violence by the military.

 


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Thousands of monks were arrested and several monasteries were closed, because they had been centers of the protests. The hopes for a positive change, which had been aroused among the people of Burma and abroad, were ruined.

Burma then again appeared in the international news when in May 2008 the cyclone "Nargis" devastated large parts of the Irrawaddy Delta and caused the deaths of 130.000 people. At that time, the behavior of the military government provoked sharp protests, because it had impeded the assistance from foreign countries. The military junta was not impressed by it. It rather used the situation: In the controversial referendum of 2008 it carried through a new constitution, which now after the start of a cautious policy of reform under President Thein Sein proves to be an encumbrance.

The elections in November 2010, which were ordered by the military junta, caused a change in the political situation. They were intended for a transition from military rule to a civilian government. The political opposition doubted the allegedly given aperture for more "democracy": this maneuver was only regarded as a concession by the military junta, due to the pressure from abroad.

Under the motto "Clean government and good politics," President Thein Sein in late March 2011 started political reforms in the country. He cautiously tries to comply with the demands of the opposition: more democracy and respect for human rights. The military, in the Burmese language "Tatmadaw", has only partially withdrawn from active politics, because according to the Constitution a quarter of the seats in Parliament is still held by members of the military. The ethnic minorities in turn call for greater consideration of their representatives. The latter are hardly or little taken into account in the military, which is almost exclusively dominated by Burmans. In addition, the "Union Solidarity and Development Party", the current ruling party is very close to the military.

The parliamentary elections in November 2010 were boycotted by the "National League for Democracy" (NLD), the party of Dung San Sub Kyu, because it distrusted the military government, and saw no fair terms for itself. Its top candidate Aung San Suu Kyi, for instance, was prohibited from taking part in the election. The decision of the NLD not to participate in the elections remained not uncontroversial. One response was the establishment of a new party, the "National Democratic Force" (NDF). It participated in the elections of November 2010, and is represented in parliament with 18 MPs.

President Thein Sein, who admittedly comes from the military, then surprised the public by a series of measures: they are clearly a reform of the former unilateral and dictatorial policies of the military junta. One of his first measures in November 2011 was to revoke the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, and to allow her political activities. The fact that the new president even invited the for such a long time ostracized politician for a conversation in the capital Naypyidaw was a surprising gesture of respect. In interviews she in turn said, "it is my impression that the President is seriously interested in a positive change in the country."

 

On the Way to Peace with the Ethnic Minorities?

This intention to push through reforms in the country finds also expression in the release of political prisoners on the occasion of the national holiday of Independence on 4th January 2012. Another positive signal of the reform policies of the government Thein Sein is the reopening of some of the Buddhist monasteries, which had been closed as a result of the riots of September 2007, and the release of monks, who had been in prison since that time, on condition that they will not be politically active.

On 1st March, President Thein Sein announced in a speech on the occasion of the first anniversary of his government before the Parliament that the establishment of peace among the various ethnic minorities on the basis of the "Panglong Agreement" has priority for his government. He then promised to co-operate with the leaders of all ethnic groups, political parties and representatives of civil society, in order to enable ethnic minorities to live in dignity. He advised the youth in this speech to exchange "the Kalashnikovs for laptops" and to contribute thus constructively to the development of the country. He indirectly addressed thus the problem that up to the present day thousands of children were and are forced to serve as "child soldiers" in the army, in order to fight against the rebels.

 


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The negotiations of government officials with representatives of several ethnic minorities with the aim of ending the armed conflict were expression of the new reform policy. It is targeted at peace among the various ethnic groups of the country. In January 2012, e.g. a ceasefire agreement with the ethnic group of the Mon was reached. Subsequently, as a gesture of good will of the government, the Mon were for the first time in years allowed publicly to celebrate their national holiday. It commemorates the founding of an independent Kingdom of the Mon 1500 years ago. The peace talks with the Karen were also successful. They led in January 2012 to a cease-fire agreement. A delegation of the government signed in Hpa-An, the capital of the State Karen, an agreement in which the government yielded to key demands of the Karen and thus ended the 63 years of fighting.

 

Will the Ceasefire Agreements be kept?

But there are hardliners on both sides. They are skeptical about the ceasefire agreement, because they cannot believe that more than 60 years of armed conflict could be ended in just two days of negotiations. They remind of the fact that already in 2004 a ceasefire was signed; but it was short-lived. Bishop Raymond Po Ray, Diocese of Mawlamyine, also Chairman of the Commission "Justice and Peace" in the Burmese bishops' conference, however, called the agreement a hopeful sign: with good will on both sides, it could lead to a real lasting peace.

On 7 March 2012, a ceasefire agreement was also signed with the Karenni, a subgroup of the Karen. It was signed in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, by a delegation of government and the "Karenni National Progressive Party" (KNPP), in the presence of representatives of the refugee agency of the United Nations and observers of the British Council and the American Embassy. Also Bishop Sotero Phamo, Diocese of Loikaw, was present as an observer, together with one of his priests. Despite the various ceasefire agreements, there remain doubts of whether the agreements will really be kept and bring about the desired objective: the end of the fighting. Grist for the mills of the skeptics is that a ceasefire agreement between the government and the Shan ethnic minority, which was signed in December 2011, is obviously disregarded by the military on the spot.

The Parliament of Burma includes a total of 440 seats. They are currently occupied almost exclusively by the ruling party of the "Union Solidarity and Development Party" (USDP) and representatives of the military. In the for 1st April 2012 scheduled special election, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was admittedly permitted to contest for one of the 48 vacant seats in parliament for her party the "National League of Democracy '(NLD) in Kawhmu, a poor district of Yangon. But she had to experience that her election meetings were hampered by the government.

 

Denouncing Abuses

But there were other hindrances to the election campaign of the "National League for Democracy" (NLD). Thus, election posters were repeatedly destroyed. On the occasion of her election meeting in the capital Naypyidaw, in order to support four candidates of her party NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to use the local stadium and was forced to deliver her election speech exposed to the blazing sun. The police security forces were instructed to turn their back to her, and the members of the civil service were forbidden to participate in her election meeting. Despite these orders, several officers participated in the election rally and cheered the public appearance of Aung Saan Suu Kyi.

In the runup to the special election, a government spokesman stated that Aung San Suu Kyi, in case she should be elected to parliament, would get an "appropriate office in the government." She herself has discriminatingly commented on the current political situation when she stated, "I trust President Thein Sein, but not yet the government." After all, there are signs that President Thein Sein is not the only politician who is committed to a political change in Burma. At the beginning of February 2012, Thura U Shwe Mann, a former general and current President of the Parliament surprised the Parliament and the public with a speech in which he criticized a number of grievances in the country, for which the former military junta is to blame. He specifically mentioned the widespread corruption in the bureaucracy. Serious errors in the planning of industrial facilities had led to financial losses and environmental contamination.

The reform measures of the government Thein Sein include also a cautious opening of the restrictions against the media: they got greater freedom in reporting and experience less censorship. But it is still unclear how far the freedom for journalists already goes. The censorship repeatedly intervenes, and journalists who report critically, are still in danger of punishment. What is connected with this opening in the field of media is the initiative of President Thein Sein to fetch key experts from abroad back to Burma. They went into exile abroad but are needed for the economic and social development of the country.

 


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One who has taken the invitation of the President seriously is Aung Zaw, editor and journalist of the magazine and the Internet platform "Irrawaddy". It reported critically on the situation in Burma for several years from Thailand. In February 2012 he returned for an exploratory visit to his native country, which he had left 20 years ago. His report reveals that Burma is in a process of change; its direction and outcome are still largely open and unstable. A new media law is in preparation by the end of the year 2012. It is created by the government without the participation of representatives of the Parliament or the media. When asked whether a free and critical reporting in Burma was already possible and perhaps a move of the editorial office of his journal to Burma was possible, Aung Zaw said that this was only conceivable for him as an attempt - while retaining the Thai base.

 

Greater Freedom for the Media

Also those in charge of the in India stationed news agency "Mizzima" have taken a similar carefully appraising position, as well as the radio station "Voice of Burma" reporting from Oslo. Representatives of the so-called "88 Generation", a pro-democracy movement of former students who on 8th August 1988 were involved in the bloodily suppressed uprising against the the military regime, have spoken out in favor of a cautious support of the reform agenda of the government Thein Sein.

The number of Christians in Burma is 5.6 percent of the population. The Baptists are here with 1.1 million members by far the largest group, while the number of Catholics amounts to 630.000. Burma's Christians come almost exclusively from among the tribal population, particularly the Karen, Chin and Kayah. Also the Catholic Bishops' Conference reflects the ethnic diversity of the country. Bishops of the various ethnic groups belong to it. By their cooperation they contribute to unity and reconciliation in the country. With the takeover of power by the military under General Ne Win in 1962, the church lost their schools, hospitals and leprosaria - all were nationalized. At the same time, foreign missionaries were expelled from the country and the leadership of the Church was transmitted to native personnel.

The situation of the Christian minority is marked by the military conflict between the central government and the ethnic minorities. In the eyes of the central government, as members of ethnic minorities the Christians belong to the problem groups: they jeopardise the goal of national unity, and must therefore be controlled or suppressed. Thus, during the reign of the military junta, the printing of Bibles, the building of churches, and social activities were repeatedly hampered or even prevented by government intervention. The "Karuna Myanmar Social Services", so the name of the national charity in the country, exists since 2002. Its activities are for the members of all ethnic groups, regardless of religious affiliation.

Since 2005, the Catholic Church has officially set herself the major target and vision to work for peace and reconciliation between cultures and religions, in order to contribute thus to national unity. However, till now the church has hardly lived up to the sociocritical or prophetic role which, due to her Catholic social teaching, could be expected from her. Critics have, for instance, found fault with the fact that the Catholic church in the "Saffron Revolution" in 2007 has confined herself to the invitation to form a prayer chain for inner peace and the exhortation to priests and members of religious orders that they should politically not side with one party, but apart from that she kept "deafeningly silent." But in the current process of transition, the Catholic church seems to want to play a more active role.

 

The Churches and the Peace in the Country

In the past, the relationship with the Protestant Christians was often disturbed by rivalry. It has greatly improved in recent decades. There are many points in common and areas of agreement with them, as e.g. the cooperation between the Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Council of Churches, in which most Protestant churches are members. After the disaster of Cyclone "Nargis" 2008, Christians of all denominations together gave aid to the victims. Apart from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, several joint events and study days are scheduled for the year 2012. They are supposed to help to improve relations among Christian churches. The Christian churches, whose members are recruited from several ethnic groups, play a not unimportant role in the effort to establish peace between the warring groups in the country.

At the celebration of the festival at the National Marian Shrine of Lourdes in Nyaunglebin in February 2012, Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon reaffirmed the Catholic Church's willingness to stand up for justice and peace, and her commitment to developing the economy, the health sector and education. He then emphasized that Catholics seek, in a spirit of solidarity and unity, the cooperation with Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus in order to promote these matters.

 


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There should be no rivalry between religions; all of them should cooperate for the good of the country. It was nevertheless surprising that Aung San Suu Kyi on 10 December 2011 had an interview with 15 bishops and four Protestant pastors on the premises of the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Rangoon.

 

Problems with the Formation of Priests

The St. Thomas Seminary in Mandalay celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011. This occasion was not only celebrated. In his official speech, the current Regent Dominic Jyo Du took the opportunity: He fairly critically reflected on the problems of priestly formation and expressed his concern with regard to the training of priests. He emphasized that there were admittedly financial difficulties in maintaining the seminary, but this problem could be overcome by generous foreign assistance. What is much more serious for him is that the current seminarians showed little zeal in their studies. They were lagging behind in their personal development and maturity, and above all in their sense of responsibility. Since it was for these reasons not possible to approve of all the seminarians' ordination, the minimum goal, however, should be achieved: they should at least become good Christians.

The problems in the training of priests are not new. Already in 2003, and then again at the celebration of the golden jubilee of the national seminary in Rangoon in 2008, the Episcopal Conference of Burma dealt with this problem - together with the professors and regents who are involved in the training of priests. On this occasion, the deficiencies in the academic and and above all in the spiritual formation of future priests were discussed. Specifically, it was found that the seminarians in their studies confined themselves basically to simply memorizing the material presented by the professors - without contentual understanding. But they were not able and often unwilling to make themselves more deeply familiar with the matter by their own studies.

One reason for the frequent lack of qualification of candidates for the priesthood is the fact that the priestly profession is highly esteemed in society: it means social advancement for the seminarians and their families. The number of those who withdraw from the seminary before their ordination is therefore accordingly high. In the 25 years since its founding, the seminary in Mandalay had 655 seminarians in training, only 91 of whom were ordained priests. It was suggested that the church should more intensely care for such ex-seminarians, because among them were many who were able to serve the church in other ways. At least there is since 2007 at the country level a community of ex-seminarians.

With a portion of 87 percent of the population, the Buddhists are the by far largest religious community in the country. The statement, "To be a Birmese means to be a Buddhist" still applies largely to the core of the Burmese population. According to the constitution devised by the military, Buddhism is the official religion of Burma. During the military dictatorship, individual Buddhist monks have repeatedly supported the forces of opposition and campaigned for democracy and respect for human rights in the country. When in 1990 and then again in 2007 some monks were killed by soldiers, Buddhist monks refused to accept alms from members of the military.

 

The Official Religion is Buddhism

The military succeeded in reducing the influence of the Buddhist Sangha: it limited the number of monks through quotas by fixing certain criteria for the admission of monks and by other repressive measures. A by the military controlled coordination committee has been created. For the nine monastic orders officially recognized by the state, it regulates the admission and training for about 400.000 monks in the country. In addition, members of the "National League for Democracy" were prohibited to become monks in Buddhist monasteries.

During the riots in 2007, which started after an arbitrary increase in petrol prices, Buddhist monks and students have played the leading role in opposing the actions of the military government. In the subsequent bloody suppression of the protests, many Buddhist temples were closed and monks imprisoned. In addition to control measures, as e.g. infiltrating informants in monasteries, the military tried to prove their religious fervor by generous financial donations to Buddhist temples, and simultaneously to win the goodwill of the leading Buddhists. In connection with the reform policy, the 20-year prohibition against the gatherings of more than five persons was canceled at the end of February 2012. And so it was possible again to celebrate with great participation of monks and laity the in former years annually celebrated festival of the foundation of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. With its relics of the Buddha it is the main sanctuary of the Buddhists.

 


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At the meeting with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in November 2011, President Thein Sein answered wisely and cleverly to the question of whether the democratic process was irreversible, "The road to democracy in Burma is so narrow that a reversal is inconceivable." When the same question was posed to her, Suu Kyi expressed her confidence in President Thein Sein, but at the same time she added 'this does not apply to the military'. Thein Sein is considered a person of moral integrity, a devout Buddhist. His marriage is exemplary and he enjoys general respect, due to his sensitivity and ability to respond to people. Among the military, who are discredited due to their involvement in corruption and violations of human rights, he is one of the few who have a clean record.

 

The Great Power of the Military

But of course he is a "creature of the military", or more precisely of Senior General Than Shwe, the former ruler, who has helped him to his leading position. Until now it is based on the controversial elections in November 2010 and that means it is not democratically sanctioned.

All parties involved are aware that Thein Sein's power continues to be dependent on the good will and approval of the military. This limits considerably his scope of action. Thus, for example, it is inconceivable to appoint, on the lines of the South African model, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would reappraise the human rights violations in the past and bring those responsible to justice. Such a measure would be urgently needed for a true reconciliation in the country.

The great power of the military in Burma - with the proud motto "The military is both mother and father of the nation" on its banner -, must be critically analysed in the implementation of reform policies. Long practised behavior patterns, as e.g. the privilege that military people after leaving the service are provided with leading positions in business, industry and the health system, meet increasingly with resistance in the population. The thesis that the military is a "state within a state", and has vested itself with privileges at the expense of civil society is proved by the military's own training centers. Not only military experts, but also their engineers, doctors and other professionals are trained there.

 


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In addition, a special jurisdiction applies only to the military. The fact that President Thein Sein, in his speech on the occasion of the first anniversary of his government, addressed the citizens as the "real parents" of the country received therefore great attention in the population. It was understood as an invitation to the military: do no longer claim to be "Mother and Father of the Nation."

 

    {*} Georg Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate on theology of religions under Karl Rahner. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.

 

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