The Human Rights Situation In Myanmar


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The Human Rights Situation In Myanmar

  1. 1. Pontifical Mission SocietyHuman Rights OfficeDr. Otmar Oehring (Editor) 28Postfach 10 12 48D-52012 AachenTel.: 0049-241-7507-00Fax: 0049-241-7507-61-253E-Mail:© missio 2008 Menschenrechte Droits de l’HommeISSN 1618-6222missio-Bestell-Nr. 600 290 Human Rights Anne Schreiber The human rights situation in Myanmar/Burma. First political steps of a minority church
  2. 2. A military dictatorship has been in power in the Union of Myanmar for the past forty years. People 24 Interfaith Endeavours for Peace in West Papua (Indonesia) in German (2006) – Order No. 600 277live in a climate of fear. The suspension of the constitution in 1988 means they have no legal in English (2006) – Order No. 600 278security. The Christian churches, which are a small minority in the country, suffer restrictions, in French (2006) – Order No. 600 279 in Indonesian (2006) – Order No. 600 280surveillance and oppression. Their members belong almost without exception to the ethnicminorities. This means the churches are minority churches twice over. 25 East Timor Faces up to its Past – The Work of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in German (2005) – Order No. 600 281In September 2007 the political situation in Burma came to a head. Peaceful demonstrations led in English (2005) – Order No. 600 282by Buddhist Theravada monks were violently suppressed. The generals sought to seal the country in French (2005) – Order No. 600 283 in Indonesian (2005) – Order No. 600 284off from the outside world. 26 Asylum for Converts? On the problems arising from the credibility test conducted by the executive and theThe following text is based on a shorter 2004 study entitled “On the human rights situation in judiciary following a change of faithMyanmar/Burma. The Church under military dictatorship”, which has been extended to cover the in German/in English/in French (2007) –political events of September/October 2007, with the focus on the role of religions and their Order No. 600 285political involvement. In addition, attention is drawn to challenges and prospects for support 27 Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China – Changes in Religious Policy?that can encourage and assist the people of Myanmar in their quest for peace and freedom. in German (2008) – Order No.600 286 in English (2008) – Order No. 600 287 in French (2008) – Order No. 600 288 28 The human rights situation in Myanmar/Burma.Status: 5 February 2008 First political steps of a minority church in German (2008) – Order No.600 289 in English (2008) – Order No. 600 290 in French (2008) – Order No. 600 291 29 Zimbabwe: Facing the truth– Accepting responsibility in German/in English/in French (2008) – Order No. 600 292 30 Defamation of Religions and Human Rights in German/in English/in French (2008) – Order No. 600 293Anne Schreiber has a sound knowledge of Asia and of the local churches in South Asia and Myanmaras a result of her training, numerous visits to Asia, and her current work. She lives in Germany andworks in the field of intercultural philosophical and theological dialogue. All publications are also available as PDF files.
  3. 3. 1Contents 2 Burma/Myanmar: facts and figures 3 1. Introduction 4 2. The political situation in Myanmar 5 2.1 The military and the Sangha – a symbiotic relationship 6 2.2 The “Saffron Revolution” 7 2.3 Violence against peaceful demonstrators 9 3. The attitude of the churches during the events of September/October 2007 9 3.1 Relations between religions in Myanmar10 3.2 The state and religious minorities11 3.3 The Catholic Church’s commitment to peace11 3.3.1 Tactic of restraint has its problems13 3.3.2 Are the Catholic clergy entitled to engage in political activities?15 3.3.3 New political engagement by Catholics in local church16 4. Support for democratization17 4.1 Challenges for international policy17 4.1.1 Economic sanctions18 4.1.2 Regime change in Myanmar19 4.1.3 Challenges for the ASEAN nations19 4.1.4 Challenges for the European Community (EC)20 4.1.5 Challenges for the Federal Republic of Germany21 4.2 The task of the Church in Myanmar22 4.3 Challenges for aid agencies23 5. Closing remarks24 6. Bibliography24 Monographs25 Articles and reports in periodicals25 Electronic references29 Notes
  4. 4. 2 3Burma/Myanmar: Facts and figures1 1. IntroductionName of country Union of Myanmar (also called Birma or Burma) Birma, Burma or Myanmar8 is the country of the golden pagodas which oldArea 678,500 sq km, of which 657,740 sq km are land2Number of inhabitants 50,519,0003 Sri Lankan sources refer to as the “Golden Land” (suvannabhumi)9 and whose ..Population Myanmar is a multinational state. The largest ethnic group is inhabitants are called “Buddha’s favourite people”10. But the golden façade is formed by the Burmans4 (68%). Other ethnic groups are the Shan deceptive, and in September 2007 we were exposed to horrifying news and (9%), the Karen (7%), Rakhine or Rohingya (4%), Chinese (3%), Indians (2%), Mon (2%), and smaller ethnic minorities (5%). pictures that catapulted the normally little heeded country into the headlinesPopulation growth The growth rate is 0.815%. of the world press. The generals’ bloody suppression of peaceful demonstrations,Life expectancy 62.49: Women 64.83 years, men just under 60. whose victims were mainly Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people, shocked theLanguages The official language is Burmese. The ethnic minorities each speak their own language. world. Although the generals blocked Internet and e-mail server links to the out-Literacy rate The illiteracy rate among women (13.6%) is considerably higher side world, they could not cover up what was happening in the country. Back than that among men (6.1%).5 in 1988 we had also received, albeit to a lesser extent than in 2007, media reportsState Previously there was a Socialist Republic with a constitution dating from 1974. After a military coup in 1988, the “State Law of student protests being bloodily suppressed by the military. Since then there and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC) took power. Since 1997 has been an information and media explosion – a fact of which the generals the executive has been in the hands of the 19-member “State Peace probably took as little account as they previously took of the possibility of and Development Council” (SPDC), which evolved from SLORC. The capital is Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The country is nationwide protests. The opening of the country to tourism and the new free- divided into seven states and seven administrative districts. doms created by Internet and e-mail made it impossible to totally seal off theCapital, seat of Yangon country from the outside world overnight. The globalization of the media hadgovernment In 2005 the seat of government was moved to Naypyidaw.Supreme A 485-member parliament (National Assembly) was elected in borne fruit. Pictures of the demonstrations and their violent suppressionconstituional body 1990 but was unable to take up its duties. The constituent were to be found on the front pages of even minor local newspapers in assembly is the National Convention which was appointed in Western countries. The pictures clearly revealed the popular discontent in the 1993 with 700 members (600 of whom were appointed by the army). It broke down in 1996 and was reconstituted in 2003. In country and bore witness to the generals’ disregard for basic democratic rights. September 2007 the National Assembly ended after drawing up If in the past those who wished could find out about the military regime’s principles for its future work. countless violations of human rights from specialist publications, in SeptemberHead of state The head of government (Prime Minister) has been Thein Sein since 18 May 20076. The former head of state and government 2007 it was no longer possible for anyone to close their eyes to what the and Chairman of the SLORC, Than Shwe, assumed the newly military regime was doing. Photos of demonstrators being beaten and shot created office of president on 23 April 1992. The voting age is went round the globe. One photo made clear that a Japanese journalist had 18, and the last election was held in 1990.Religions 90% of the population are Buddhists (Theravada Buddhism), been shot not, as the generals maintained, by accident, but deliberately. principally Burmans; 6% are Christians (among whom the World indignation at the generals ran high. New sanctions were imposed, while Baptists far outnumber the Catholics), most of whom belong to various governments issued declarations and warnings to Burma’s rulers. Even the various ethnic minorities; 4% are Muslims who belong to the Rohingya/Rakhine people; 1% are followers of so-called the government of Burma’s big neighbour and friend, China, could hardly refrain nature religions; and 2% are of other religions, such as Hindus, from calling upon its comparatively small partner and protégé to adopt peaceful who are mainly Tamils, originally from India.7 measures. Nevertheless the Chinese and Russian governments remained loyal and prevented the UN Security Council from passing a resolution on the familiar grounds of “internal affairs”.11
  5. 5. 4 5The following text is based on a short 2004 study entitled “Human rights in Yangon; of foreign criticism of the SPDC; of foreign military intervention, andMyanmar/Burma. The Church under military dictatorship”12 and extends it to by the necessity of a more central location for the SPDC, enabling it to takecover the political events of September/October 2007, with the focus on the role military action against outbreaks of ethnic unrest on the eastern border.”18of religions and their political involvement. In addition, attention is drawn tochallenges and prospects for support that can encourage and assist the people As the recent past has shown, the government was unable to avert at leastin their quest for peace and freedom. the first two of the above-mentioned “dangers” with the relocation. As for the real reasons for the relocation of the government many Burmese are agreed that it was not a rational calculation, but the generals’ belief in astrology and2. The political situation in Myanmar numerology that was responsible for the new city.19 The man at the top, General Than Shwe, “a sick man in his mid-seventies, who seldom shows himself in public” and is said to be uneasy in company, placed most of his trust inBurma has been ruled by the military since 1962.13 Today it is one of the poorest astrologers in finding a site for the seat of government. Pyinmana Naypyidawand most underdeveloped countries in the world.14 The military junta that has ruled (also: Nay Pyi Taw) means “Seat of Kings”.20 With the relocation the generals cutthe country since 1988 keeps the population of the country in check with pover- themselves off definitively from the people of Myanmar. “Civilians andty and lack of education. In a country rich in natural resources 25% of the popu- foreigners are strictly forbidden to enter [the city].”21lation live below the poverty line.15 Human rights violations of every kind are the By their self-isolation and reign of terror the generals have finally severedorder of the day. This is well known to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch their links to the people and lost contact with reality. This was made evident byReport and other organizations that document and publish human rights violations the effects of a political miscalculation they made in August when fuel pricesworldwide.16 The only elections to take place under the military dictatorship – in were raised by up to 500%. It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back –1990 – were not recognized by the country’s rulers, as the opposition party, head- reactions and actions were triggered that the generals had clearly not reckoneded by the later Nobel Peace Laureate of 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi, had clearly won. with, especially as they came from an unexpected quarter.The constitution of 1978 was suspended in 1988. In 2003 a National Assembly wasset up by the generals as the first of seven steps towards what they call a “discipline-flourishing democracy”, which closed in September 2007 without any mention of 2.1 The military and the Sangha22 – a symbiotic relationshipa timetable for the six further steps.17 One thing that the National Convention did The monks and nuns of Theravada Buddhism are people who have withdrawn frommake very clear, however, was that the generals want to secure their position of power the “worldly” life in order to devote themselves to seeking the road to redemption.for the future. For that reason the opposition party, which won the elections of 1990, Normally this has nothing to do with a secular let alone a political commitment.will not be involved in the drafting of the new constitution. For the people of Burma, Nevertheless, in at least some of the countries with a Theravada Buddhist majori-however, the continuing lack of a constitution has meant 20 years without legal ty – besides Burma one might mention Sri Lanka – the political influence of Budd-security, which opens the door to arbitrariness and corruption at all levels of the hist monks can be documented.23hierarchy. That political Buddhism in Burma has a tradition, i.e. that the monastic By proceeding in this manner the generals have become more and more community or individual monks have acted politically in the past, has beenremote from the cares and problems of their people. That this alienation is shown exhaustively by Heinz Bechert.24 Hans-Bernd Zöllner writes: “The role ofdeliberate is clearly shown by the transfer of the seat of government. In November the monk as rebel has a long history in Burma.”25 Even today the monk2005 the government relocated from the capital Yangon to a city specially constructed U Wisara is revered as a national hero and the first martyr of the Burmesefor this purpose in the middle of the jungle. independence struggle against the British. Although the military regime has repeatedly stripped the monks of their robes since coming to power in 198826 “No official justification was offered for the surprising move, but it appears and has imposed long prison sentences on some,27 there has been what one might to have been mainly motivated by the fear of possible civil protests in call a symbiotic relationship between the Sangha and the military regime. As the
  6. 6. 6 7generals like to pose as the benefactors and supporters of Buddhism, they could The fact that during the 2007 demonstrations donations from members ofhardly have expected such a massive protest on the part of the monks. the military had not been accepted by the monks must have dealt a severe blow Buddhism came to Burma in the 5th/6th century A.D.28 and has “the longest to the government, as it thereby lost the blessing of the monastic community.tradition” of the “world religions represented” in Myanmar today. Buddhists alsomake up the great majority of the population. These two facts may explain why “The Burman word for ‘to strike’, literally translated, means ‘to turn the almsBuddhism is the religion preferred by the military government. “However, there bowl upside down’. For if monks accept no more donations, they deny the donorare far more cogent realpolitik reasons for the military regime to lean towards the opportunity of winning spiritual favour. They excommunicate him in aBuddhism and to be seen to be doing so. Even dictators need some support among sense, exclude him from the Buddhist community, deprive him of the basis forthe population if they are to maintain their position for any length of time. By proving and preserving his life in the cycle of rebirths. Political and religious‘paying homage’ to Buddhism, i.e. supporting monasteries, building pagodas, strikes in Burma are thus [...] inseparably intertwined with one another.”33etc., Myanmar’s generals are following an old tradition of rulers acting as patronsof Buddhism. But the people follow those who protect Buddhism.”29 The prefer- After the drastic rise in the price of petrol many Burmese found they couldential treatment of Buddhism, however, must not blind us to the fact that the no longer afford so much as a bus ticket.34 On 5 September monks taking partrelationship between the military government and the Buddhist community is in a demonstration in Pakkoku suffered injuries at the hands of military personnel.ambivalent. This ambivalence shows itself mainly in relation to the Buddhistclergy, which the regime seeks to bring under its control.30 Although the state “Even if the protests that took place before 5 September were important eventsgrants Buddhism a clearly preferential position, the Sangha are still kept under in the history of Burma [...], 5 September, when hundreds of Buddhiststrict control. Under the “Sangha Organization Law” of 1990 all organizations monks took to the streets of Pakokku, marked a turning point […]. Theof monks apart from the nine monastic orders recognized by the state were decision of the monks to join in the protests was of great significance, asbanned. These nine orders are subject to the authority of the state-supported State monks in Burma enjoy high moral esteem and had repeatedly stood at theMonk Coordination Committee (“Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee”) that is centre of political uprisings since the end of the colonial period.”35indirectly elected by the monks.31 This committee also controls the two state-sponsored Buddhist universities in Yangon and Mandalay, where Buddhist An apology from the government for its disproportionate action againstmonks are trained. Monks who refuse to comply with the rules laid down by the the monks was not forthcoming. “And as in the colonial period the conflictmilitary must expect severe sanctions. According to the International Religious escalated when the dignity of the monks was assaulted.”36 The Burma expertFreedom Report, 26 monks were arrested in 2003 and stripped of their robes. In Hans-Bernd Zöllner writes:2004 they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 18 years be-cause they had refused material donations from the government.32 “The economic misery of the population, for which those in power are responsible, and the dignity of the monks, who stood side by side with the population, are inseparably interlinked in Burma. A monk can only pursue2.2 The “Saffron Revolution” his calling of providing spiritual and pastoral care for the population if theAlthough most of the Buddhist monks in Burma wear red robes, the term latter in turn gives him material support. Thus Buddhism can only flourish“Saffron Revolution” is now widely used, especially in English-language in a flourishing economy. This also means, however, that if harm is donepublications, for the events of September 2007, in which thousands of monks to the dignity and hence the integrity of the monks, harm is done to the(and nuns) took part in peaceful demonstrations. Even before the rise in the price human dignity of the laity too.”37of petrol there had been demonstrations by members of the “88 GenerationStudents’ Group” – also known as the “88 student generation” – an oppositiongroup of former student leaders. Some of the monks who demonstrated in 2.3 Violence against peaceful demonstrators38September also belonged to the 1988 generation, i.e. the group that had shared The readiness of military governments in Myanmar to use violence to crush demon-responsibility for or organized the protests on that occasion. strations has been known since 1988 at the latest. When the students rose up in
  7. 7. 8 91988 to demonstrate against the dictatorship and the economic decline it had police allowed a procession of demonstrators to go to the home of the oppositionbrought about, the protests were bloodily suppressed. The universities were relo- leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was – and still is – being kept under housecated from the towns to the countryside and divided up into the smallest possible arrest. This encounter of the highest symbolic value was seen as a sign that theunits with a lower educational level. There were no longer to be any large, centrally generals were ready to enter into negotiations with the opposition. A few days latersituated universities that could act as breeding grounds for educated “insurgents”. the generals struck.However, the military regime never really succeeded in dousing the flame of the“1988 student generation”, whose leaders inspired the demonstrations of 2007. In 1987, after the people of Myanmar “had been suffering for decades fromrestrictions on their political rights and economic mismanagement”, the 3. The attitude of the churches during thedevaluation of the currency and the “abolition of controls on rice prices” in events of September/October 2007autumn 1987 were only the “trigger for political protests”.39 Although the then partyboss, Ne Win, after ruling for 26 years, stepped down first as general, then as self- In the past the Catholic Church of Myanmar has adopted a “policy” of non-appointed president, and finally as the top political figure40 in the face of persis- intervention vis-à-vis the military junta. In individual dioceses bishops eventent protests in July 1988, this failed to bring about the democratization of the maintain “friendly” relations with the local authorities, which gives them acountry. During the 17-day “reign” of Ne Win’s successor, Sein Lwin, who was certain freedom in the exercise of their duties and not a few privileges. The twoknown for “his cruel measures against demonstrating students”, an estimated 3,000 main arguments justifying why neither individual bishops nor the Bishops’peaceful demonstrators were killed.41 When Lwin was also forced to resign, there Conference in Myanmar raised their voices against the unjust situation and thewas a brief period when the democratization movement in the country seemed many human rights violations in the country were, firstly, the fear of personalto be successful.42 “In many places Students’ and Monks’ Committees took over consequences and, secondly, the fear of losing the relative freedom and tran-the disintegrating administrative apparatus. Thousands of people joined in a quillity that the Catholic community enjoyed.45general strike demanding the immediate resignation of the government and its The tactic of restraint was the first to be applied by Christians during thereplacement by an interim administration.”43 Then, on 18 September 1988, a demonstrations of September 2007. Reports appeared to the effect that “themilitary putsch led by General Saw Maung brought the predecessors of the pre- Christians in the north of Burma are showing remarkable restraint”, “althoughsent military junta to power, the “State Law and Order Restoration Council”, the protests of the monks in Burma against the high-handedness of the militarythus dashing the dreams of a democratization of the country. junta are escalating”.46 This report refers to the Baptists in Kachin State, who have the largest Christian church, although the same could be said of the Catholic com- “[In 1988] demonstrators were shot during military operations on the streets munity too. Since the “saffron” demonstrations, however, a change is becoming of Rangoon, monks and medical personnel being among the victims. There evident in the attitude of the Catholic Church of Myanmar. In public comments was no official investigation, but according to credible estimates about on the political situation in the country the tactic of non-intervention has been 3,000 people were killed during the crushing of the demonstrations in Sep- at least partially abandoned. tember 1988. In the country at large 10,000 people were killed between March and September 1988.”44 3.1 Relations between religions in Myanmar In September 2007 the generals hesitated before resorting to violence against The conclusions of the 2004 study47 regarding the relations between the variousthe demonstrators. This hesitation initially gave rise to hope. Many assumed that different religions in the country continue to apply. There are constant disputesthe generals could not afford to use violence against peaceful protests, between the adherents of the various religions and between the Christian de-especially protests led by Buddhist monks. The loss of face would not only be nominations themselves. And it is still the Muslims in Burma who are subjectedenormous in the eyes of their own population, but also of other Asian countries to the severest restrictions, discrimination and persecution. The Internationalwith large Buddhist communities. After all the monks enjoy the highest esteem. Religious Freedom Report states, for example, that the term “Muslim” on theOn 21 September 2007 hopes of a peaceful solution were boosted when the government-issued ID cards that every citizen and permanent resident must
  8. 8. 10 11carry with him at all times often results in harassment by the police or immigration The Christians in Myanmar are a minority in a double sense. On the oneauthorities.48 The numerous repressions that the Muslims in Burma are exposed hand they belong almost without exception to the ethnic minorities, while onto are set out in detail in the report. The other religious communities in the the other they are clearly a minority anyway, as they make up a low percentagecountry generally show no solidarity with the Muslim population, which is of the population. Furthermore, Christians complain that they are regarded asstigmatized as being radical and fundamentalist.49 strangers in their own country, both by the Buddhists and the government, and But relations between Buddhists and Christians are also constantly placed are often described as such. The argument is that, unlike Buddhism, the variousunder strain as a result of attacks on the Christian minority. In some cases the Christian denominations only arrived in the country in the recent past and onharassment and discrimination meet with the approval of the Buddhist clergy.50 the backs of the colonial powers to boot.58 The burden of the colonial legacyAs late as January 2007 Christians complained “of monks co-operating with the is one that Christians have to bear not only in Burma, but in other Asian coun-military government. In Chin State 300 monks are supposed to have been sent tries as well.out by the government to convert Christians to Buddhism using violent methods,and in the village of Koh Kyi in Rakhaing State a monk is said to have burneddown the village church allegedly with the support of the military.”51 There are 3.3 The Catholic Church’s commitment to peacealso constant reports of adherents of the religious minorities being used as Although the Catholic Church of Myanmar has traditionally adopted anforced labour to build a pagoda or other Buddhist monument. The site of the apolitical attitude, it resorted to its most characteristic methods in order to doBuddhist building is often that of a previously destroyed structure belonging to its bit for peace and reconciliation in the country. Every year since 2003 theanother religious minority.52 Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Protestant Myanmar Council of Churches have held an ecumenical week of prayer for peace and reconciliation from 28 September to 4 October in Yangon.59 In autumn 2007 the bishops in Myanmar were3.2 The state and religious minorities still insisting that next to social commitment for the people of Burma prayer wasThe attitude of the military junta to the religious minorities, which are also the the only way of contributing to peace and democratization in the country. Thiscountry’s ethnic minorities, seems to be hardening rather than softening. In emerges clearly from an interview with two Burmese bishops in Rome which wasJanuary 2007 the Sunday Telegraph carried the headline: “Burma ‘orders Christians reported by AsiaNews on 27 November 2007. When asked “what contribution canto be wiped out’.”53 In October 2007 AsiaNews featured the headline: “Myanmar junta Catholics make to the cause of peace and democracy?” Archbishop Charles Maungattempts to ‘cancel’ Christians and Muslims”.54 The Sunday Telegraph article Bo of Yangon and Bishop Po Ray of Mawlamyine both referred to prayer. Bishopreported on a secret document headed “Programme to destroy the Christian Raymond Saw Po Ray said: “Prayer is the only thing we can offer to those who putreligion in Burma”,55 which may have been leaked from a government ministry. their lives on the line fighting for democracy and respect for human rights.”60 Arch-The text of the document begins with the words “There shall be no home where bishop Bo said he was “convinced that the September incidents [were] partly thethe Christian religion is practised”56 and calls for anyone caught evangelizing to outcome of a long campaign of prayer for peace in which the Burmese Church [had]be imprisoned. The Sunday Telegraph supposes that the document, which was been engaged since 2005 in all its dioceses”.61passed on to it by human rights groups, “may be the work of a Buddhist groupworking in tandem with the military government”. Although the governmenthas denied authorship of the document, it made no public efforts to refute or 3.3.1 Tactic of restraint has its problemsreject its contents. AsiaNews reported there was a fear that the military regime Bo’s last sentence may seem cynical, though it surely was not meant to be. Forwas aiming to restrict the rights of the religious minorities, “starting with the it can be interpreted as meaning that because of Christian prayers adherents ofright to vote”. Thus members of the religious minorities have difficulties in get- another religion can be motivated to let themselves be killed on the streets orting an ID card. Some express the concern “that the government perhaps means tortured in prison in the struggle for a better and more humane future for theto exclude us – if we are not allowed to register, we are practically non-existent, country. The insistence on prayer and social commitment as the only courseswhich in turn could lead to serious difficulties in exercising the right to vote and of action available is justified by the following argument: “As a minority wegaining access to the public health service”.57 cannot speak our mind openly, since the government is determined to crack down
  9. 9. 12 13on any form of dissent. We want to continue to exist as a community and 3.3.2 Are the Catholic clergy entitled to engage in political activities?therefore must keep a low profile and be very careful.”62 Since the emergence of Latin American liberation theology in the second half Although there are reasons for a tactic of restraint, it must not be overlooked of the last century the debate within the church on the political engagement ofthat it acts as a stabilizer for one of the world’s most cruel dictatorships. Those clerics has intensified. There is now a discussion as to whether and to what extentwho remain silent in the face of the harshest repression and flagrant injustice are the Catholic clergy should or must become politically active.indirectly assenting to the actions of the dictators and make themselves guilty The nature of the relationship between church and state is also a matter ofby association. Furthermore, since September 2007 the restraint argument controversy in Asia. An example of the view taken by some Asian bishops andhas lost its cogency, even if it is obvious that the Christian community in theologians that direct interference by the church in state affairs must be absolute-Burma wants to survive – which is harder for it as a minority than it is for ly rejected may be seen in a talk given by a Vietnamese bishop, Paul Bui Van Doc,the Buddhist majority – as it is now clear that even the Buddhist clergy is not at a Misereor conference65 held in co-operation with the Vietnamese Academyimmune to persecution by the regime. And as we know from painful experience, of Social Sciences (VASS) at Hanoi in October 2007.66 In order to demonstrate thesilence or restraint in a dictatorship is one of the best guarantees for a long period rightness of his view, the bishop quoted from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deusof repression. Even if the Buddhist majority in Burma is not so easy to bring to heel caritas est”, which says: “A just society must be the achievement of politics, notas the religious minorities, a Buddhist is not safe from persecution either. Those who of the Church.”67 Bishop Van Doc goes on to stress:were killed, beaten and thrown into prison in September were mainly Buddhists. Archbishop Bo’s explanation that “the problem is that we must keep a low “The church is increasingly coming round to the realization that her task isprofile across the board if we want to continue our work. For this reason I of a pastoral and not a political nature. She does not intend to interfere inencouraged every diocese to join in prayer rather than take to the streets. the internal affairs of any country. The church is organized to meet the reli-We are a small minority and must keep this in mind”63 is not altogether gious needs of the faithful, while the political community creates rela-convincing. There can be no question of “must”. The Church is not forced to take tionships and structures that serve the common good on earth.”68its decisions. The reference to the minority status must not become an excuse forinaction, however self-deprecating. In addition, the Church might perhaps “have Bishop Van Doc is right to assert that the task of the church is a pastoral one,to” concern itself less with matters of welfare, education and health if the state but it does not follow from this that the responsibility of the church is in no waywere to get another government. political. For the question arises as to what responsibility the local church of a Naturally it is easier for outsiders to pass judgement and call for action than country bears – not only in a pastoral but also in a political sense – if the govern-it is for those who by so doing might make themselves targets of repression and ment fails to attend to the common good, and no external political efforts arediscrimination. In this sense outside criticism is always unjust. In no way should able to put an end to this unjust situation. The following passage cited by thethe power of prayer be denied. But even if the Catholic Church still insists on bishop from the encyclical gives no satisfactory answer: “The church cannot andprayer as the sole possibility of action, its attitude is changing. The very fact that must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most justthe two bishops gave an interview (cf. 3.3) bears witness to that. In it they spoke society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same timefrankly and clearly about the situation in the country, thus criticizing the she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”69 Themilitary regime. They also expressed their respect and recognition for the action action to be taken by the Church, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is to deployof the Buddhist monks. Said Archbishop Bo: “They became peoples spokesmen” “rational argument” as part of the “struggle for reason” and to arouse “spiritualand he added “in our hearts we were close to the Buddhist monks”, an expres- forces”. Under an unjust regime rational argument by itself – especially if con-sion of solidarity which is by no means a matter of course among the religions ducted in public – can be a political act resulting even in political Myanmar.64 This applies to Myanmar as much as to other dictatorships. Furthermore, we have seen in Myanmar that the regime is not open to rational argument in the service of justice and the common good and simply does not permit a “struggle for reason”. Also, in many situations involving political repression it is not a question of taking the political battle on oneself, but of assuming political
  10. 10. 14 15responsibility for the good of the community and the Church. For such cases publicly stigmatizing the abuse of power. Pope Benedict XVI acted politicallyCatholic canon law does afford the clergy possible courses of political action. on 30 September 2007 when in the face of the bloody suppression of nation- Can. 285 §3 of the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church forbids clerics wide demonstrations in Myanmar he addressed a clear appeal to those in“to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power in Myanmar to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. In a sense thepower”.70 At the same time “clerics are always to do their utmost to foster among highest dignitary and office-holder of the Catholic Church joined in an appealthe people peace and harmony based on justice”.71 The following paragraph of which the Archbishop of Yangon had issued some days law makes clear what restrictions apply to this. Can. 287 §2 states thatpriests “are not to play an active role in political parties or in directing tradeunions”. But political work is not restricted by allegiance to a party or trade union. 3.3.3 New political engagement by Catholics in local churchIn any case, if a Christian church in a country like Myanmar speaks up loud There were also outward signs of a change in the attitude or tactics of theand clear on the subject of the unjust situation created by the military regime, Catholic Church of Myanmar in the face of an unjust regime. This was madestrictly speaking this is already an act with strong political dimensions. Interestingly clear, for example, by the public comments on the political events of Septemberenough, the general prohibition quoted above is given a remarkable qualification. 2007. Furthermore, in these joint comments the Christian churches showedAfter the words “directing trade unions” the sentence continues: a rare degree of solidarity, unity and unanimity. At the beginning of October, UCA News (Union of Catholic Asian News) “unless, in the judgement of the competent ecclesiastical authority, this reported that a letter had been sent by the Archbishop of Yangon, Charles Maung is required for the defence of the rights of the Church or to promote the Bo, who is also General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, and Arch- common good.”72 bishop Samuel Mahn San Si Htay, President of the Myanmar Council of Churches, to the head of state, General Than Shwe.75 The letter contained an appeal to: “treat If looked at in a positive light in relation to the situation in Myanmar, this this case with paternal love and by peaceful means so as to ensure stability, peacecan mean that the bishop of a diocese is perfectly entitled to allow a priest to and non-violence, which is also the wish of the people.” Even if the appeal of thebe active in the opposition party so as to promote the common good which is two archbishops on behalf of all Christians living in the country sounds extremelycompletely disregarded by Burma’s rulers. Such a possibility is also expressly con- cautious, it must not be overlooked that the two men were going out on a limb,firmed by the “Münster Commentary on the Codex Iuris Canonici”. Section 6 which in Myanmar can always entail personal consequences.of the Commentary on Can. 287 § 2 states: “[...]‘exceptional cases’ [which can The archbishops’ letter of 28 September 2007 had been preceded two dayslead to a priest engaging in party-political activity may be deemed to exist] ‘if earlier by an appeal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar to allantidemocratic forces were to threaten the public space necessary for the exer- members of the Church to pray for their country.76 This letter, signed by thecise of human rights or prevent – albeit covertly – the preaching of the gospel General Secretary, Archbishop Bo, and the Chairman of the Bishops’ Conference,and no lay people were available to take action’.”73 That these are not the only Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng, in which the bishops make clear the posi-“exceptional cases” and that priests can engage in political activity even when tion of the Catholic Church of Myanmar with regard to the present situation inthere is no shortage of lay people is made clear by the Commentary when it cites the country, states:as an example the priests who were politically active (if not necessarily in a party- “3. In accordance with the Canon Law and Social Teachings of the Catho-political sense) “in many communities, districts, etc., of the former GDR lic Church priests and religious believers are not involved in any party politics(“German Democratic Republic”) after its collapse”…“whose participation in the and in the current protests.‘round tables’ was not necessitated by the absence of lay people, but was due to 4. Catholics, as citizens of the country, are free to act as they deem fit. Thethe fact that they were among the few people who inspired confidence”. On the clergy and religious believers can give proper guidance.”77basis of such examples the Commentary concludes: “Exceptions to the afore- On 6 October 2007 the British Catholic weekly The Tablet reported that thesaid prohibitions may be indicated for various reasons.”74 If, however, direct poli- Archbishop of Yangon was tear-gassed by troops dispersing a crowd of protesters:tical engagement by the clergy is protected under canon law under certain con- “Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, his eyes streaming, was forced to flee from Suleditions, how much more justified are “indirect” political activities, such as Pagoda in central Rangoon when troops fired tear gas on the crowds in an attempt
  11. 11. 16 17to disperse them.”78 As we have already quoted the archbishop more than once Given the scale of the present study it is only possible to list some of the chal-as being clearly opposed to clerics taking part in demonstrations against the regi- lenges and recommendations formulated by politicians and experts. The focusme, we may assume that Charles Bo was not present at Sule here is on the Catholic Church of Myanmar and the aid agencies that support it.Pagoda as a demonstrator. Yet it is also clear from the article in The Tablet that An exhaustive account of the international reactions to the violent suppressionthe archbishop had not gone out of his way to avoid political demonstrations of the peaceful protests as well as of the challenges presented in Myanmar by theeither. Otherwise he would hardly have fallen victim to the military’s tear gas. military regime, the opposition, etc. has been provided by the InternationalThis shows a degree of courage and personal commitment that gives sufficient Crisis Group.81grounds for hope for the future of the Church in Myanmar to outweigh theconstantly repeated arguments dictated by tactics and fear that are intendedto justify the restraint and indeed the passivity of the Catholic Church. 4.1 Challenges for international policy The fact that Bishop Bo is finding support in his own ranks for his new “poli- In September 2007, Human Rights Watch published an extensive catalogue ofcy” of courage is made clear by a report in AsiaNews to the effect that Catholics recommendations containing concrete proposals for the UN Human Rightsand even a few priests went along with the monks and other demonstrators.79 Local Council, the European Union, the Association of South-East Asian Nationssources reported, according to AsiaNews, that Catholic schoolchildren and students (ASEAN), and individual governments. Human Rights Watch justified this step,had joined in demonstrations in Yangon and Mandalay. Priests had apparently which was unusually indirect for it as an organization, by referring to “dozens ofvisited monks to express their support for them. good faith recommendations to the government that have been systematically ignored”.82 One proposal made by Human Rights Watch is to impose comprehensive4. Support for democratization sanctions designed to hit the military regime and the forces in the country that support it. But the advisability of economic sanctions, which often just make the situation of an already impoverished population even worse, remainsIf the people of a country set out to improve their own situation, if a church has a matter of doubt.the courage not to keep out of it, but to express clearly its solidarity with thosewho are making a stand, these people should receive all the assistance they canget from the outside world to achieve their aims, at least in the longer term. For 4.1.1 Economic sanctionsthe events of September 2007 have shown that although the initiative to bring The 2004 study pointed out what consequences economic sanctions wouldabout changes may come from within Burma itself, the forces of change in the have on a population like Burma’s, which was living on or below the povertycountry are not sufficient to achieve it. Outside assistance is necessary to the line.83 Such boycotts could only be effective if Myanmar’s great friend anddemocratization process in the country. It is immaterial if people in Myanmar neighbour China and other countries like India84 went along with them,85 butprobably hope in the first instance for more peace, a higher standard of living, there is no sign of that happening, especially in the case of China. In an inter-enough to eat, etc., instead of for more democracy,80 as such things are more like- view for the German newspaper taz the Myanmar expert Hans-Bernd Zöllner dis-ly to be attained in a democracy than under the present military dictatorship, misses as “completely unhelpful and counterproductive” the “reflexive” resortwhich uses the poverty of the population as an instrument to retain power. to sanctions as a reaction to political events in Myanmar,86 saying: “I never metFurthermore the word “democracy” has an exotic ring for people who often have anyone in Burma who thought sanctions would do any good – and I didn’t speaklittle education and have spent much or even all of their lives in a dictatorship to a single friend of the regime.” Zöllner’s opinion is confirmed, for example, bycompletely cut off from the rest of the world. an article in Der Spiegel, in which Jürgen Kremb reports on a meeting in Yangon If the lives of the people in Myanmar are ultimately to change in the organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. None of the Burmese guests, whodirection of more freedom, justice and a greater share in shaping their destiny, included members of the opposition, spoke in favour of economic sanctions. Dera democratization process is needed which forces inside and outside the country Spiegel quotes a Burmese as saying: “They [the EU and U.S.] must throttle the gener-must strive to promote, support and implement. als with mobile phones, the Internet and trips abroad.”87
  12. 12. 18 19 Asked what concrete action was to be taken if economic boycotts would not the one hand there is the danger of being taken over by the generals, at leasthelp, Zöllner replied: “Anyone who wants to show solidarity with Burma as far as appearances are concerned. On the other hand, if one tries too hardshould find out about it, go there, hand out cash to the right people, and then to keep one’s distance there is a danger of this resulting in unproductivereport on their impressions.” Zöllner’s judgement is harsh when he says: “Our “non-co-operation”.politicians should also begin by finding out about it. Our politicians haven’t a The scenario outlined by Zöllner may sound pessimistic, but it seems to beclue.” Zöllner is right to recommend abandoning the “visa boycott against junta the only realistic one if our aim is to conduct a democratization process peace-generals”. Even if one proposal sounds naïve – inviting the generals to Germany fully and successfully. After all democracy in Burma first has to be “learned”. Theand the U.S. to show them “how well democracy works and how to manage opposition in the country has had no opportunity of gaining any practicalan economy”88 – it is not without a certain logic. If sanctions do not help, if experience of democratic governance. This is one of the great challenges facingUN Security Council resolutions are repeatedly blocked or “watered down” by the reform movement: how to prepare itself for democratic politics in such a wayRussia and China, if the economic interests of countries like India and China that after the change of regime the country does not end up plunged into newsupport the regime indirectly or directly, new avenues will have to be explored, chaos or in the grip of a different kind of dictatorship.however naïve they may sound. 4.1.3 Challenges for the ASEAN nations914.1.2 Regime change in Myanmar A major responsibility to the people of Burma is borne by the Association of South-How fast it is feasible or desirable to bring about political change in Myanmar is East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member. An important step woulda question to which answers vary. At the moment military intervention from out- be for the ASEAN nations to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and upholdside would probably be the sole possibility of bringing about an immediate or rapid it. In addition, Burma should be forced by the other member states to complychange in the political situation. However, such a solution is not desirable, as the with the charter that the ASEAN nations adopted at their 13th summit inU.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown. The alternative is slow November 2007.92 Even if this charter has disappointed some politicians of theand peaceful change, which must be supported by and required of the democratic member states, such as Indonesia’s foreign minister Alatas, who has describedforces within Burma itself and all governments and organizations outside Burma. it as “watered down”,93 it must be ensured that its requirements, such as they are,This, however, will be a democratization process that will require staying power are adhered to. There is to be a human rights commission, for example. This ison the part of all concerned. In the above-mentioned interview Zöllner made the an important step for the region, even if no sanction mechanisms are in placefollowing comment: to deal with violations any more than there is a time frame for setting up the commission.94 In order to lend emphasis to the requirements of the charter, Burma “The only rational [future] scenario is for the ruling ‘bad guys’ to get the must not only be threatened with expulsion from the Association in opportunity to go through with their road map, i.e. draft a constitution and the event of violations, but the threat must also be carried out. This is only an hold a referendum that has nothing to do with democracy, but will facili- indication of the many possibilities – so far little used – which the ASEAN tate a certain stability and a measure of legal security. In this way things may nations have of exerting more influence on the military regime in Myanmar. get a bit better in 10 to 15 years, perhaps, if domestic and external forces co-operate. I don’t like the scenario, but I see no other realistic way.”89 4.1.4 Challenges for the European Community (EC) The opinion that changes in Burma are only possible with the military is The “EC-Burma/Myanmar Country Strategy Paper (2007-2013)”, which was pub-also shared by other Burma experts, such as Yang Razali Kassim of the Centre lished in 2007, mentioned education and health as “focal sectors”. In justifyingfor Political Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang University.90 Furthermore, the their choice of priorities the authors write: “Taking into account the politicalopposition, and especially its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, must face the fact that situation, good governance should be treated as a cross-cutting issue and theprocesses of change will initially only be possible with the “enemy”, i.e. the Commission’s assistance programmes must systematically integrate the promotiongenerals. It’s already clear that this is going to be a difficult balancing act. On of democracy and human rights.”95 One can only hope that despite the political
  13. 13. 20 21events of autumn 2007 the EC will stick to its strategy of critical promotion and, falls into junta’s propaganda trap”, Spiegel-Online for 9 October 2007 describesindeed, intensify it. how “difficult it is to deal with dictators”.99 The previously reached agreement that “nothing shall appear in the press on the content of the talks”, was not honoured by the generals. Both the evening news and the following day’s4.1.5 Challenges for the Federal Republic of Germany edition of the junta’s official organ, New Light of Myanmar, reported on the During her visit to India in late October 2007 Chancellor Angela Merkel called meeting in such a way that, according to Spiegel, one can only wonder “why theupon the military regime in Burma to introduce democratic reforms and other Social Democrats and their guests did not simply stand up and walk out”.100 Inmeasures.96 The fact that she did this while in India says something for her diplo- spite of what happened, members of the opposition in Yangon defend the initi-matic tact, as India had been one of the countries that had been supplying Bur- ative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which had invited them to a meetingma’s generals with arms until just a few weeks before.97 Furthermore, Merkel’s action in Yangon’s Savoy Hotel. “This regime will be brought to its knees by openness,made clear that it is not only necessary to address oneself to those in power in not isolation,”101 said a member of the opposition in defence of the work of theMyanmar, but also to talk to those governments which directly or indirectly sup- Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Myanmar. What cannot be defended, however,port the regime there, e.g. through economic relations. However, Merkel would are the remarks of the leader of the delegation, Christian Hauswedell, a formerhave to repeat her demand for the democratization of Myanmar anywhere and Asia Co-ordinator of the German government,102 who told Der Spiegel about theeverywhere before it ultimately bore any kind of fruit. A single remark cannot Savoy meeting: “The media are dramatizing this to some extent.” Hausweddel’sachieve anything. A policy of constant nagging directed also at Myanmar’s next sentence was reported by Jürgen Kremb as follows: “The generals [had] onlyallies assumes, however, that the paramount political imperatives are not used violence with extreme restraint.”103confined to the economic welfare of one’s own country. Only if one is willingto accept disadvantages for one’s own economy in order to champion the causeof a ravaged nation can one avoid becoming too dependent on economic 4.2 The task of the Church in Myanmarinterests and susceptible to their influence or even blackmail. It should be added If one wants to turn people who have spent much or all of their lives under athat it is not only the politicians that have to step up, but the people at large. military dictatorship into responsible citizens, i.e. to prepare them properly for lifeFor the requisite attitude is “unpopular” and can only be maintained by a govern- in a democracy, one must help them to experiment with democratic structuresment that has popular backing at home. But how prepared are the Germans to on a small scale. This is where the Catholic Church of Myanmar can play its partpay an economic price to help the people of another country? The nurturing by examining its own organizational structures to see whether they encourageof a willingness to pay such a price in order to support a largely unknown nation a sense of shared responsibility among the laity or whether the latter are kept inrequires many years of lobbying not only by the government, but also by the a state of dependence by priests and members of religious orders so that they arevarious aid and other agencies in Germany, with the focus on young people. unable to practise either responsibility or democracy in the ecclesiastical field. TheThe creation of such an attitude must therefore start in the schools. election of parish councils and officials in all parishes, for example, would be an How difficult it is to enter into dialogue with dictators is shown by an importantstep towards enabling the laity to exercise responsibility and pro-initiative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. This “German mediation initiative” mote their capacity for independent action. Also, the training not only of priestswas reported by the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung as “ruffling feathers” in the and monks but of lay people in the fields of political science, peace studies,European Union (EU) even before it took place. The Foundation works together conflict-management, overcoming trauma, etc. would be an important stepwith the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies, which is towards preparing the Church’s own members for the democratization process andattached to the Burmese Foreign Ministry, and this was the third time the two possibly enabling them to take an active part in it.institutions had brought together representatives of Myanmar and the EC. “The The work of Caritas (“Karuna Myanmar Social Service”) and the Justitia etaim was to overcome the inability to engage in dialogue and explore ‘ways of Pax Commission in Myanmar will be measured by the contribution they make tocreating a new basis of trust’.”98 This time a perfectly sensible initiative was the training and consciousness-raising required to build up a democratic civildoomed to failure as the fear that Myanmar’s rulers would instrumentalize such society.a meeting proved to be justified. Under the headline “Friedrich Ebert Foundation
  14. 14. 22 23 As regards the direct or indirect political commitment of the Church of 5. Closing remarksMyanmar, as represented by the Bishops’ Conference and individual bishops andpriests, the following should be said:104 A church or religion whose founderviolated the commandments of his religious community for the sake of Even now, some six months after the bloody suppression of the peacefulhumanity105 must always be prepared to face the challenge of deciding which of protests of September 2007 “over 700 demonstrators [are] in jail, and others areits own rules and commandments it is prepared to violate in order to help fore- arrested almost daily”. And “the Internet is subject to ever stricter control.”106stall a grave injustice. This also applies if in most situations its own religious Many Buddhist monasteries have been more or less abandoned, while importantprohibitions and commandments have a rational and/or religious justification. social institutions formerly run by Buddhist monks have been closed down. Fear is usually a poor counsellor, especially when it comes to standing up for In the long term we can help the people of Myanmar by not leaving themjustice and peace. This also applies to those who prefer to continue living in their in the lurch and doing what we can to help facilitate a peaceful and long-termpresent circumstances, which they regard as tolerable if unsatisfactory, than to democratization process at all levels – and by still being at it in a year’s time.take the risk of working for a more humane future. To date many countries have pursued a policy of sanctions and exclusion towards the military junta. How dangerous it can be to attempt a new tactic of rapprochement is shown by the example of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. But4.3 Challenges for aid agencies since twenty years of exclusion and sanctions have brought no improvementThe careful handling of donated funds requires that the staff of the aid in the situation of the people of Myanmar, the time seems to have come toagencies operating in Myanmar should be intimately familiar with the situation pursue other strategies, perhaps involving a policy of positive incentives, andthere. The extent of the oft-cited “administrative costs”, including such items more especially a tough but real dialogue with the generals and with China. Asas travel expenses, must not be used as an argument against that. Knowledge part of this dialogue we should, as Zöllner rightly points out, try to talk to theof the facts is essential to competent counselling and the processing of project younger generation: “As far as the younger generation is concerned, we mustapplications. Local churches especially, working as they do in difficult political, not forget that the military academies are the best universities in the country,social or cultural circumstances, sometimes require outside help in seeing their and that some of the generals have experience of other Asian countries.”107 Theway to adopting new perspectives, possible courses of action, problem-solving importance of such a dialogue is underscored by the International Crisis Group:strategies, etc. Relief organizations can only provide this sort of assistance if theyhave experts available for the purpose. Moreover, in conducting a dialogue “The most important means for the long-term promotion of peace, demo-with ecclesiastical or secular partners in Myanmar they must be able to set cracy and comprehensive development is critical dialogue with the regimeaside their own expectations and standards wherever necessary and possible so and other groups, which, however, both the West and regional forces haveas not to demand too much from their partners and make allowance for their failed to engage in.”108capacities. This also means training their partners – or arranging for their training– in project administration, setting up systems of application processing and The International Crisis Group is absolutely right when it argues that thereporting, and financial administration. generals’ isolation can only be broken down by means of critical dialogue so as Another proposal that should be mentioned concerns South-South or South- to give them the confidence to think of new ways forward.North encounters. It is the responsibility of the local church – and also of the aid Developing new strategies is the task of the international community and ofagencies – to facilitate encounters with the local churches of other countries which individual governments. This will involve visiting Myanmar, whether as a politi-have had to – or are still having to – face comparable political challenges and may cian, a church representative, or simply as a tourist, and then to report on and discusshave come up with some solutions. These encounters should be arranged not only what one has seen and experienced. This is the time for church aid agencies to makeamong the clergy, but also among selected lay people in order to develop visions a great effort to offer counsel to the various ecclesiastical denominations in Burmafor another Burma. Such encounters will also involve facing up to inconvenient and give them unbureaucratic, rapid and sustained assistance.questions and challenges, communicating, listening to others describe their ownexperience, and applying the lessons to one’s own situation.
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