Much is expected of Aung San Suu Kyi, who in April of this year became the leader of Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since 1962. In a country where Buddhist, Muslim and Christian have a troubled shared history, it is surely asking the miraculous (as the New York Times’ editorial board did on May 9) to present to the world a policy that can immediately pour oil on troubled waters.
His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo presented a more realistic viewpoint during his visit to Scotland. On the day that the New York Times slammed “Aung San Suu Kyi’s cowardly stance on the Rohingya”, Cardinal Bo spoke to a Glasgow audience comprising representatives of every religious group to be found in the city.
Giving a brief history of the reasons for his country’s problems, which are as diverse (or perhaps that should read ‘as closely linked’) as the effects of poverty, the knock-on effects of being the world’s second biggest producer of opium, and terrorism, Cardinal Bo stressed that Myanmar’s embryonic government would have to ‘establish human rights for all ethnicities and all religions’.
He added ‘If Myanmar is to truly have peace and prosperity, the rights of all ethnicities and religions must be respected.’
The event in Glasgow’s City Chambers had been organised by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Aid to the Church in Need, Missio Scotland, and SCIAF. Sharing a platform with the leaders of Scotland’s religions, Cardinal Bo explained that the Catholic Church had a 500-year history in Myanmar. The country’s own history stretches back for 13,000 years. Unsurprisingly, many dynastic changes and foreign invasions have added layer upon layer of diversity, and the cardinal did not hesitate to mention the negative role that British rule played in Myanmar’s troubled journey.
Once a country dominated by agriculture, the British made far-reaching social and economic changes that emphasised the differences between ethnic and religious groups. Cardinal Bo suggested that in abandoning the country to an ill-prepared independence in 1948, the British paved the way towards the long-running civil war that reduced Myanmar to an existence as one of the world’s least developed nations.
However, the Cardinal is clearly as optimist. Referring to a Jewish saying, he told his audience ‘A little light drives away much darkness.’ And quoting Aung San Suu Kyi, he said ‘Use your liberty to promote ours.’
The Cardinal heard that a Muslim centre in Myanmar has been cared for by the small local Jewish community. As leader of another minority religion, he reminded his audience of the old question ‘I asked Jesus how much do you love me’, and in response, Jesus held out His arms on the cross and said ‘This much’. This, the Cardinal stressed, was how much Jesus gave for us to be free.
The event allowed Scotland’s own diversity to showcase progress. There were updates on a number of cross-religious initiatives, including the school with a joint Jewish and Catholic campus. Cardinal Bo’s comment on the situation in his own country was one for all communities to take to heart: ‘Hope has no expiry date.’
By Marian Pallister, who expresses her own views here