Archbishop of Yangon Charles Maung Bo was among 20 new cardinals whose appointments were announced by Pope Francis on January 4. The appointment of Myanmar’s first cardinal followed celebrations last November marking the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism in Myanmar. A special papal envoy who attended the celebrations praised the organisation of the anniversary, saying it was a “marvellous experience”.
More than 150 members of Myanmar’s Roman Catholic community are planning to travel to Italy for the ceremony at the vatican on February 14 in which the new cardinals will be invested as members of the College on Cardinals. Cardinal-elect Charles Maung Bo spoke with Mizzima’s Portia Larlee about his appointment and his calls for reconciliation and peace in Myanmar.
How do you feel about being appointed Myanmar’s first cardinal?
Of course I am happy. At the same time this was unexpected. Usually, in the past, when cardinals were appointed the person concerned was informed at least a few days in advance. This time I was in Kolkata and my niece from Australia informed me my name was mentioned among the cardinals. At first I thought it was a joke but then I saw the news from international and local outlets. I enquired with the other newly appointed cardinals and they said they were not informed ahead of time. So it was a surprise for me in a sense and also joyous in a sense.
What does your appointment mean for Myanmar?
The Pope has recognised the community here and is somewhat giving credit to the country through this attention and recognition. Our country is being brought to the forefront. The international community can help and really work for real democracy, justice, peace and prosperity. In that way I am happy. Not because of the personal title or merit on its own, but for the Church as well as for the whole people of Myanmar. We rejoice together. Recognition has been given to the whole country and for that we are very, very happy.
The Vatican has an embassy in Bangkok, despite Myanmar having a larger Roman catholic community than Thailand. Will the Vatican be opening an embassy in Myanmar?
About 30 or 40 years ago the number of Catholics in Thailand and Myanmar was about the same. But currently the population in Thailand remains at about 350,000 we have grown to 850,000 Catholics. Before 1990 we were under the nuncio of Dakha in Bangladesh. Then, in 1990 an apostolic delegation of Myanmar was created at the Bangkok embassy. We [Myanmar] don’t have a diplomatic relationship with the vatican. On the church side we have been trying to establish this for about 10 to 15 years, but the response from the government side was it should happen after this period of transition.
With this appointment I think we could push this further. I think they [the government] will be more willing. In the future we will have diplomatic relations with the vatican and the Holy See and Myanmar. Then also, there will be an embassy here in Myanmar.
Do you expect a papal visit?
Last year for our 500 years of Catholicism in Myanmar national celebration we [the Myanmar Bishops’ Conference] invited him and they [the vatican] acknowledged that they received our invitation. But since the vatican is also a state, they would still need the official invitation from the government here, and we are trying to request the government for an official invitation from the Pope. Since they are too busy in parliament with all the new laws and legislations nothing is being arranged yet and the government cannot give much attention to this issue.
The Archbishop of Bangkok will also become a cardinal. During the Pope’s visit to [South] Korea [in August 2014] we discussed a joint invitation from Bangkok and Yangon. Preferably if he comes, he would go to both places.
Have members of the government contacted you since the appointment?
I received a phone message from the office of the Minister of Religious Affairs congratulating me and inviting me to come to Nay Pyi Taw for a visit. I also received a very personal letter of appreciation and congratulations from [speaker of parliament] Thura U Shwe Mann. It was signed by him and sent to my home. News of the appointment has been included in state media like the New Light of Myanmar and MRTV.
Leaders of religious communities in Myanmar consider you an outspoken advocate against religious-based violence and extremism. How will you address these issues as cardinal?
This is a very important issue. I think the government as well as religious leaders will have to work toward reconciliation. Of course we need justice for reconciliation and without reconciliation we cannot have peace. Once we have peace we will have development. If there is no peace, the development is impossible. One will build and the other will destroy.
There are some extremist views spreading and there are somewhat legitimate fears about terrorism. But of course, we cannot advocate violence. Also, I think humanitarian assistance should be done as soon as possible. The solution should be found as soon as possible, otherwise it will become a chronic problem. For us to solve the conflicts in Myanmar Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, all the leaders need to come together to discuss and make a collective statement to resolve this crisis.
More than 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, have been displaced by religious-based violence in Rakhine state since 2012. How is the government handling this humanitarian crisis?
The government should try to find a solution as soon as possible, maybe by giving citizenship to some worthy cases, those who have been here for more than a century already, those who were born here. But the government needs to study this case by case. And Myanmar by itself will not have a solution. Neighbouring countries, Muslim countries, and the international community could help solve this one.
The government is a bit slow on this point. It is moving but not enough attention is being given. Religious leaders should come together, humanitarian help should be available and we should speak out against the violence.
What is at the root of nationalistic Buddhism? How do you specifically address this?
It is a case of propaganda. Some of the extremists would like Buddhism to be a state religion and for everyone to become Buddhist. There are extremists like this within any religion. I think we need to educate these monks, encourage them to have respect for other religions and other nationalities.
What is your opinion about the draft bills on religious conversion and interfaith marriage being debated in parliament?
I don’t think this will become real law; it’s just the draft. It is especially restricting the freedom of Buddhist women. It is separating their own people and ignoring other religions.
Regarding marriage you need to get permission from the local authority. For life partners we don’t need to have approval from anybody else. Marriage involves the mutual agreement and the consent of two people. Religion is a very personal thing. I can stay in my own religion or I can change to another religion and there shouldn’t be a force by anyone else. If they are forced to change their religion then where is the freedom, the place for them?
The Pope has said, we have to respect even those who don’t have any religion at all. We have to respect that that is their culture. So we cannot force religion. If the law is be passed, I think the elements of democracy will be compromised.
Do you have aspirations to become pope?
No, no. I’m afraid I don’t feel I am worthy and at the same time qualified to guide the whole world. One should have a very universal approach and experience in many situations. I am limited here because I never studied in Rome; I had to stay here during the time of socialism from the 1960s to the 80s. We were stuck here during General Ne Win’s time. All of our studies were done here and we didn’t have any exposure. My knowledge of the universal Church is very limited. In that sense I am not capable, not fit really to lead the universal Church. Even now as cardinal I feel very, very uneducated. So I have no ambition, no wish.
What is your primary goal as cardinal?
To have reconciliation and peace in the country. This is very basic for our development regarding issues in Rakhine State and the issues between military government and those different ethnic groups. If religious leaders and all the people have goodwill and the government is not holding on to power but has goodwill and they work on creating real dialogue, we could have peace in the country. Otherwise, our democracy is still in a wavering state. The Buddhist Burmese government has been ruling and equality has not been granted to the ethnic groups. They do not easily believe the government. This is an area we need to work on. The wounds in this country are deep.
What is your plan for the interfaith dialogue you have suggested?
The [interfaith network] Religions for Peace is active here and also American ambassador Derek Mitchell has been trying his best to call religious leaders to build up a concrete plan. We will have a gathering at the [American] embassy of religious leaders to speak about these issues. I suppose I will have more opportunities to visit Nay Pyi Taw, the officials and parliament members. Nay Pyi Taw will be my focus point for building reconciliation and peace.
Do you expect many Myanmar people and members of the diaspora to travel to the Vatican to see you formally become a cardinal at the ceremony on february 14?
About 160 have come here [to the Archbishop’s office] for recommendation letters from the nuncio in Bangkok. When they get the letter the Italian embassy here will provide the visa to go to Rome. People will also come from places like England, the United States, Australia and France. For many, it will be the first time at the vatican.
Catholicism in Myanmar
Portuguese traders arrived in Myanmar in 1510 and their chaplains followed them one year later, marking the first Roman Catholic proselytism here. Concern about religious freedom in 2011 meant the church delayed its 500 year anniversary celebrations until November 2014. Catholic schools were among those nationalised after General Ne Win seized power in a coup d’état in 1962 and many newly-arrived missionaries were . But the church continued to grow and boasts a larger Roman Catholic population than Thailand. There are 16 Roman Catholic dioceses and more than 750 priests throughout the country.