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Interview With Cardinal Charles Bo

Interview With Cardinal Charles Bo

In recent months, Myanmar is the world’s spotlight due to the fleeing of Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, explains the complexity of the problem and proposes ways government and international community could engage to find a way forward. Excerpts from the interview:

Who are the Rohingya?

Rohingya are Bengali speaking Muslims of Sunni sect in the North West state of Rakhine state in Myanmar. Their name comes from Rooganga – a Bengali term denoting that the person comes from Rakhine state.

Why is the government not willing to call them “Rohingya”?

The name is highly controversial inside the country. The government has forbidden the use of the term and also requested the diplomatic community not to use that term.

Myanmar is a colorful nation of seven major tribes with 135 sub-tribes. These are considered indigenous communities mostly from Tibeto Burman stock with Mongoloid features. The country is a mosaic of these indigenous tribes who must have come thousands of years ago.

Rohingya’s claim to this category is highly contested. Rohingya are not indigenous tribe like Kachin. Their cultural expressions, according to the government, are not indigenous but they come from other countries.

What is their history?

Like their name, their history remains highly contested. There are two versions -- one by the nationalists (which is also the implicit view of the army and the government). Another one is by the people especially the strong Rohingya lobby.

Government Version: There is no Rohingya in the history of Myanmar. They were the people brought by the British as cheap labour. Colonial aggression penetrated first Arakhan state. For their own reason the British encouraged the influx of laborers from then British India, especially from Bengal. Since Myanmar was part of the British India till 1935, Bengali labourers were brought by the British for working in Rakhine state. British never used the term Rohingya. Porous border facilitated many to cross over since Bangladesh population is exploding with no resources. There is no mention of Rohingya in the British records, so these are illegal migrants from Bangladesh and they should go back. Two million “Rohingya’ are outside and they would also claim citizenship if we are to give citizenship based on this term.

Rohingya Assertion: Our history is four centuries old from the Mogul kings in India. Muslim merchants were trading with Arakhan state even before. Living here for centuries has evolved a unique identity Rohingya. Rohingya is a term used by foreign authors from 1773. We are a unique group.

What is the history of the conflict?

Second World War: During the Second World War, Muslims formed their own defense forces and allied with the British. Arakhan Buddhists allied with the Japanese army. These two groups indulged in massacres.

Aftermath of Independence: The Rohingya elite formed a mujahidin jihadi group and tried to have a separate Arkhanstan. Some wish to be part of the then east Pakistan. Pakistan rebuffed that move. Armed struggle continued for a separate autonomous Muslim State.

After the Coup: The Burmese defeated the militant groups and imposed restrictions on the Muslim population, their movement and their ownership.

What are the reasons for the recent conflict?

Some 60 years of government by military junta caused deep wounds in society. Poverty, displacement and unsafe migration broke our society. After long struggle and suffering the country opened up. There was never a truth and reconciliation commission. There was need for a scapegoat and unfortunately an incident in 2012 became a trigger in Rakhine state. A rumor of rape of local women by Muslim youth triggered a riot which resulted in nearly 120,000 Muslims displaced in the camps.  These camps were the breeding grounds for frustrations.

Many Rohingya chose to flee to other countries, especially to Malaysia for livelihood. After allegations of human trafficking and the discovery of mass graves of Rohingya on the Thai Malaysia border, the Thai authorities closed the trafficking routes, impacting the one possible way of Rohingya to seek livelihood away from the camps.

As frustration was brewing, a militant group was set up outside with the support of groups from Middle East. The first attack took place in August 2016, with attacks on the security points. The police and army reacted with aggressive response. Thousands fled.

After heavy criticism and allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ Myanmar Authorities tried to revive the civil administration and village administration. But the militant elements had already penetrated the Rohingya youth populations. The insurgent group, which refers itself as Hadaka al-Yawing (Faith Movement, Hay), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics.

The trigger to the present exodus is the attack by the militant group on August 25. Around 450 militants attacked the police posts and those who supported the government. The army reacted with aggressive response. 

How many are displaced?

As per the international organizations around 470,000 have displaced among them around 230,000 are children. This is significant as 50 percent of the Rohingya population has left the place.  There are also around 30,000 Rakhines and Hindus displaced inside the Rakhine state.

What is the response of the Buddhist monks?

Myanmar has 500,000 monks and most of them are very peaceful. But a section of the monks has become highly radicalized and nationalistic. They put forward the following poisonous theories:

Islam has an agenda to convert countries to Islam from Saudi to Indonesia and they already achieved this till Bangladesh. Now they have opened operations in South Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar.

Rohingya population is a Trojan horse. Through high fertility rate and through unrestricted migration from Bangladesh they have determined to change the demography of Myanmar. Rohingya also marry the local Rakhine girls thus reducing the Rakhine population.

What is the position of the majority of the people of Myanmar?

As we have discussed, the people are innocent but will listen to their religious leaders. Most of the people are not compassionate due to the phobia created through hate speech and social media.

Social media and freedom of expression given after the formation of democratic government is proving a double-edged sword. Hate speech spreads fast and fake news becomes true news.

Rohingya issue was a smoldering cauldron for long time. But their suffering has increased emboldened by the following global changes in the last two decades:

Manufactured and marketed Islamophobia from the west.

Xenophobic official discrimination of Muslims in countries like the U.S.

Treatment of minorities by the Muslim countries.

However, we should follow the efforts of Pope Francis in upholding the rights of everyone that includes Muslims in this era of Islamophobia.

What is the role of Aung San Suu Kyi?

As we know, her role has come under scorching criticism. Her status is not official under the constitution. She has suffered and sacrificed much in her life. Her role in melting the rock of totalitarianism in Myanmar is historic and the people of Myanmar are indebted to her for the freedom they enjoy. 

Our perception is that she is trying to stabilize the fragile democracy. It took sixty years to reach where the country is. The army, like Thai army, has no patience with democracy and grabbed power from democracy thrice in Myanmar. This is a tight rope walk and she is trying her best.

It is unfortunate that the recent events did not show her in good light. She should have spoken on behalf of the victims, especially when so many women and children forced to leave under such painful circumstances. She lost the support of the international community by her silence.

Her speech and subsequent announcement of rehabilitation and verification process is a good start. I only hope and pray she is allowed to do what she has done.

What is the role of the church – was it silent during the exodus ?

Church was not silent – though no statements were issued. We were working towards bringing some understanding among various actors.

Church has stood for the rights of every one - including the Rohingya. Christian ethnic groups – Kachin, Kayahs and Karens – continue to be in conflict and displacement for the last thirty years. Both as the Bishop conference of Myanmar and as personal response we have stood for the rights of all the people.

On personal capacity I have opposed the following:

The four black laws enacted targeting the Muslims by the previous military government.  Our appeal was widely covered by the media and the diplomatic community. We have resisted all efforts of extremism.

When the Rohingya met a watery grave in the Thai seas, victimized by the traffickers we have raised our voice.

In June we appealed to the government and others to go deeper into the allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Our position is clear:

The 1982 citizenship law was not enacted by a democratic government.  It was the military dictatorship and revisiting this 1982 Act is overdue.

This law stipulates 1885 as the date of accepting citizenship.  This is impossible.

The Rohingya have been issued twice some quasi citizenship -- once during U Nu time and then recently before the 2010 election.  The Government must start by regularizing these cards.


What is the future? Are you hopeful?

As long as Aung San Suu Kyi continues we have hope. She is a strong woman with strong principles. Despite the piercing criticisms of the international community, Myanmar depends on her for many compassionate responses. I am confident of her acceptance of the Kofi Annan commission report.

She has already formed a working committee and welcomed the return of the refugees and asked the committee to start the verification process. This is a welcome move.

Violence by anyone needs to be avoided.  It is a great tragedy that militants from outside are opening a new front of conflict. Both the government and the Myanmar army need to realize that aggressive responses without any solution in the long run would turn this issue into a pestering conflict. Myanmar has many other pressing issues – poverty alleviation, strengthening democracy, state and nation building.  

Dialogue is the only way forward.  Peace is possible; peace is the only way.


What is the role of the church?


We affirm the rights of every person in Myanmar and would continue to affirm the rights of the Muslims in Rakhine for dignity which includes citizenship.

We would extend our services to Rakhine state through Caritas network. At present this area is inaccessible and there is not much presence of the church.

Since religion plays a major role in the response of the people of Myanmar we will continue to organize the inter-religious peace conferences. We have already conducted one at the national level. We may host the next one in Pyay or Rakhine itself.


How will the visit of the Pope impact the events?


Pope has been an active supporter of the Rohingya issue. Already thrice he has spoken from Vatican and the world has taken note of his interest. His proposed visit has generated a lot of interest.

There is an effort by a section of lobbying groups that his visit is connected to the plight of the Rohingya. This is an apostolic pastoral visit. He comes at the invitation of the government which has articulated that his visit would encourage “peace and harmony”.

The government is very eager to get this visit going. The Pope has an opportunity to impress all stakeholders to take the path of peace, not only with Rohingya but on other conflicts as well.

It is an extra ordinary moment of grace for the little flock of what is really a Buddhist country.  

We are sure this great good shepherd of Peace, through his presence and prayers, would bring a new dawn of peace to this long suffering nation.

(Published on 06th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 45)