‘Myanmar is a symptom’ - Cardinal Bo on the coup, US elections, and China

A Pillar interview

On February 1, the military in Myanmar seized control of the country, arresting the democratically elected government and declaring a state of emergency. 

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, told The Pillar in a Feb. 10 interview that in the fallout of the coup d’etat, the Church, must be a witness of love for enemies, following the example of Christ on the cross.

Bo has served as the Archbishop of Yangon since 2003; he was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015. In 2019 he was elected to lead the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

The cardinal spoke with The Pillar about Myanmar’s coup, the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, and human rights in China. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Pillar: Since the military took power following the election, you have spoken about the shock felt by many in Myanmar. How have people in Myanmar have reacted in these last 10 days? What is the appropriate spiritual response for Christians in the country?

Cardinal Bo: “Our people are deeply disturbed. Their path to healing needs to start with prayer and supplication. Already we set apart a Sunday for prayers and fasting. This nation is deeply wounded, spiritually and emotionally. This is a country known for its pristine spiritual spring. It should start drinking from that.” 

“As Martin Luther King Jr said, darkness cannot dispel darkness, only light can dispel darkness, hate cannot dispel hate, only love. I am cautiously optimistic so far [that] this principle [will be] held tight. But the future might be slippery. We live with prayer in our lips and hope in our hearts.”

What has been your most urgent pastoral concern for the people of your country as a whole, and for Catholics in particular, since the Feb. 1 coup?

“Pastorally, we are deeply concerned about the safety of our people. Our history is a wounded history with so many tears and bloodshed. Evil asserts itself in history in inhuman ferocity. Facing that needs spiritual energy and a sense of calm and resistance based on love for even the enemy.” 

“Christ faced the same challenges and at the last from the Cross he could still say: ‘Forgive them for they do not know what they do.’ It is easy to say, but when we see thousands of youth marching every day, we are concerned that the tsunami of despair should not end in self-destruction and loss of hope.” 

“We hope Catholics participate in all the [pro-democracy demonstrations] with love for all. Hatred would end in mutilating violence. There is power in the ‘empty hands,’ as [when] Pope St. John Paul faced Polish Communism, or when Mahatma Gandhi melted the British imperialism with a handful of salt.” 

“Our struggle is rearming ourselves with moral armor not self-defeating anger. The struggle is long.” 

How can the Church, and especially you as a cardinal, contribute to preventing violence and creating dialogue?

“We are not politicians. Politics is a power game. The stakeholders are not always motivated by a moral compass. Our only power is witnessing to the power of hope and reconciliation.”

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“As recent history in your country proved, inflated egos can bruise the whole nation, tearing asunder the moral fiber of a great nation.  The same prayers and activities [the] Church [in the United States] contemplates are the same [for Myanmar]. We try our best. We may win or lose. But as Moses taught us, participation is important. We do have initiatives on dialogue which we might not discuss in the public domain as of now.” 

Many priests, religious sisters, and young Catholics have shared pictures on social media calling for peaceful, non-violent, civil disobedience, and taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations.  Are you concerned for their safety, and do you believe peaceful protests can help restore democracy?

“An instruction has been given to them by the bishops' conference. The present resistance is led by a young generation that grew through social media and [are] knowledgeable on many issues. They know the world better than previous generations.”

“Like all families, the Church has a highly motivated young generation with great energy and urgency to see results. We who have lived through three major resistances - and their failures and following sad consequences - would like [to see that] necessary boundaries are observed in all resistance movements. We are concerned about their safety and future.” 

“We do not prevent anyone from participating in this struggle. We were the first to come out with a statement against the coup. Streetwise protests need to be coordinated and strategized to minimize risks to life. We mean this for the whole young population that comes out day after day to protest.”

Looking at the situation in China, and now the loss of democracy in your own country, how important is it for the Church to be a prophetic witness for human rights, and to speak out against abuses when they occur?

“Human rights flow from the Christian concept of human dignity articulated in the first pages of the Bible. It is a constitutive element of being a Christian. The whole process of Exodus and Christ's own Galilean Manifesto of Luke 4: 16-19 is the articulation of human rights in faith language. So we cannot avoid supporting Human Rights.”  

“Pope Francis has mainstreamed two major rights: Economic rights and Environmental Rights.”

“China's problem is its enslavement to an ideology that killed millions in the past. Now it is trapped into a curious mix of state power married to reckless capitalism. Unregulated market economy is a monster, and in the company of the Chinese Dragon this is an end-time conflict between naked materialism and struggle for human dignity.” 

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“So when the Church speaks against violation of human rights, it is articulating her faith in the public square. From ‘Womb to Tomb,’  human beings have rights. Proclaiming that is the Good News and evangelization. It is more than prophetic. It is our existential identity.” 

What would you ask of the international community at this time? How can Catholics in other countries help, and show their solidarity with Catholics and others in Myanmar?

“Myanmar is a symptom. The US as a moral power collapsed in recent times. The contention about 'election fraud' in Myanmar gained steam after the Capitol Riots of your revered democratic tradition. Someone sneezes in Washington and an elected government is toppled in Myanmar. This is an infectious moral Covid.” 

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“The US has to heal its visceral wounds inflicted on the idea of democracy and elections. That would be the first step in solidarity.”  

“Catholics in all the countries need to pray for us: our future is in God's hand and His Grace can bring change to the hearts. The international community should not rush into sanctions against the people of Myanmar. They need to understand our history and political economy before punitive measures are contemplated.”

(On Wednesday, President Biden announced sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders, their business interests, and their family members.)

How can the Church around the world better serve as a prophetic witness — a voice for human dignity and rights in places like Myanmar and China?

“I do believe the Vatican has worked out a certain modus operandi and modus of living for the Chinese Catholics. Freedom [of] religion is at great risk in many countries. Christians are becoming the most persecuted religious group in the world.” 

“[The] Church grapples with the choice of being a prophet and protecting its most vulnerable. Countries are good at punishing the most vulnerable in the religious minorities. Choices are limited in these countries for the local Christians.”

“Only sustained global campaigns and the UN monitoring would lessen the tears and brokenness of persecuted Christians.”

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