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Catholic World News News Feature

Behind Iron Doors May 01, 2003

Throughout the world the Catholic Church is visible through her institutions, the hospitals and schools that dot the main streets of cities even in countries where Christians form only a tiny minority of the population. But that is not the case in Myanmar, the southeast Asian country which, until the late 1980s, was known to the world as Burma.

Christians are a minority in Myanmar, certainly. But their numbers are not as small, proportionately, as in many other Asian countries. Here Christians account for about 6 percent of the land's 56 million people (Catholics make up just over 1 percent of that total). But in a land where Buddhists constitute the solid majority, and where the society has been in the iron grip of a ruling military junta for more than four decades, the Church has virtually no visible public presence. After the military takeover in 1962, all major institutions, including schools and hospitals, were nationalized by the new regime. The Burma Socialist Program Party (BSSP), which came into power with the backing of the military establishment, forced churches and other private groups to hand over hundreds of schools to the government. The BSSP saw government control as a necessity; the country's new rulers feared that private schools could produce "unpatriotic" citizens.

The Christian community in Myanmar endured a second shock in 1966 when the regime instructed all foreign missionaries to leave the country. That blow fell especially heavily on the Catholic Church; unlike the Baptists who form the country's largest Christian denomination, the Catholic Church relied heavily on missionaries to lead parishes. Nearly half of the priests and nuns in Myanmar at the time--about 500 in all--were among the missionaries expelled.


"We never thought we would be able to meet this crisis," admits Bishop Sotero Phamo, who doubles as apostolic administrator of the Yangon archdiocese and Bishop of Loikaw. Yet the Church has managed to fill the vacuum that was created when the missionaries left. Today, in fact, the Catholic Church in Myanmar has over 800 priests and 2,000 nuns at the service of her 600,000 faithful.

Looking back on the double shock that hit the Church in the 1960s, and viewing those events from today's perspective, Bishop Phamo now wonders whether the government edicts against Church-run institutions really were as devastating as they seemed. "Maybe the ban has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for us," he reflects. With even organized social work now being reserved by the military junta as a state monopoly, the Christian churches had no choice but to concentrate their energies on pastoral work.

Freed from the responsibilities that come with the administration of various institutions, pastors spent more time caring directly for their flocks. In a country that still remains largely under the cover of forests, and where the Catholic congregations are scattered across the map, ordinary pastoral care for parishioners is a time-consuming business. The bishop remarks: "We are now struggling to find time to visit our people more often. So what would our situation have been like if we had institutions to look after?"

Perhaps that personal attention to parishioners--which is practiced not only by Catholics but by the country's other Christian groups as well, for the same reasons--explains why the proportion of Christians within the population of Myanmar has grown in the years since the military takeover. Two decades ago, Christians accounted from 4.6 percent of the national population; today the figure has crept up to over 6 percent.

At the local level, the Christian communities of Myanmar are remarkably energetic. Churches in the larger cities are regularly packed to their capacity. In remote rural areas, loyal Catholics eagerly wait for the priests who visit them to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. Many young laymen have chosen to go through the process of training to be catechists, assisting the priests and religious in the task of evangelization. Unlike many other countries, Myanmar is not facing a "vocations crisis."

NOT SO HARSH Asked about the harsh conditions in which the Church must operate, Bishop Phamo takes a defensive posture. "Our conditions are not as bad as the outside world thinks," he claims. The bishop explains:

In Vietnam, you need permission from the government to appoint a new bishop. In China, the situation is much worse. But here in Myanmar, I should say, we have full pastoral freedom. The government does not interfere with the everyday life or work of the Church. However, Bishop Phamo does concede that the exclusion of the Church from educational and social work does take a toll. The Church, he says, is "denied any role to play in the life of the nation." If Christians could operate their own institutions, and establish their own public identity, he believes, they "would not have to live on the fringe of the society in Myanmar."

Moreover, a public role for the Church would help to facilitate dialogue with other religious groups, the bishops says. "There could be much better religious interaction here" if the country's various religious groups could engage in social work. As things stand, there are "not many avenues for understanding" among the country's different faiths, he says.

The absence of interaction complicates the Church's effort to bring the Gospel to the country's Buddhist majority. "Ordinary Buddhist people do not have much contact with us," Bishop Phamo notes. Today Buddhists constitute about 85 percent of the nation's population. Their lack of contact with Christianity today is a continuation of a long historical pattern. Many of the major ethnic groups of Myanmar are, for all practical purposes, 100 percent Buddhist. Despite four centuries of Christian missionary presence, the dominant Buddhist culture is almost untouched.


Although Catholic missionaries from Portugal were the first Western visitors to bring the Gospel message to Myanmar, the eventual dominance of the British colonial power led to the exclusion of Catholic missionaries. For years Baptist preachers were the only evangelists with ready access to the strongholds of ethnic groups like the Karens and Nagas. The results are still visible today, with Catholics accounting for only one-fifth of the country's Christian population.

However, the drastic restrictions imposed by the military regime have brought another unexpected benefit for the country's Christians: a strong sense of solidarity among the different Christian groups. Although they are barred from the sorts of social projects that provide the best opportunities for ecumenical cooperation in many Western countries, the Christians of Myanmar enjoy a sense of common purpose that is seldom visible among the Christian bodies of many free nations.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar has set up a joint commission for cooperation with the Myanmar Council of Churches--a body that groups together the 13 major Protestant groups that are active in the Asian land. And even in the face of severe government restrictions on their work, the Christian groups find that they have plenty of opportunities for small-scale social action. "There is no dearth of issues for us to work together on," says one charity worker. "We just have to work within the restrictions on our involvement." There is certainly ample scope for charitable work in Myanmar, where the economy is severely depressed and the banking system is in a shambles. Individuals are allowed to withdraw only a maximum of 1,000 khyats (about $160) per week from a banking account, and even that withdrawal can be made only after obtaining an authorization coupon from the bank days ahead of the actual withdrawal. On the other hand, for an ordinary citizen the sum of $160 represents a very substantial store of capital; the average salary for a government teacher is a mere $5 per month.

In remote village areas, the economy of Myanmar is governed by primitive barter trading. Impoverished parents, who cannot gain access to hard currency in order to pay doctors' fees for their sick children, often carry bags of rice and vegetables to the Protestant seminaries, hoping to arrange a deal. In cities like Yangon, one can seek vendors hawking dried fish at the gates of the impressive private bank buildings in the commercial center; the presence of these poor street merchants reinforces the visitor's realization that this is a country grappling with a severe economic crisis.

In rural areas, where the nearest school may be more than five miles away from a remote village, Christian groups have worked together to set up informal village schools, serving 60 or 70 young students, with volunteers serving as teachers. Since the government ban on private schools is still in force, these village schools operate on a completely informal basis; the government would undoubtedly step in and take over if the schools became visibly established. "Many village schools have risen up this way," says Bishop Philip Lasap Zahawng of Myintkyina, the chairman of the Catholic bishops' ecumenical commission. "We are trying our best to help the people, any way we can."

The Myanmar Council of Churches and the Catholic bishops' conference are also working to develop a strategy for providing assistance to the country's displaced families: the internal refugees who have been driven from their homes by ethnic conflicts. Yet again the government restrictions on private social programs force Church workers to be cautious in their efforts. The Church cannot organize refugees to lobby for government support, as they might in other countries. "We are not going to undertake any advocacy programs," says one Church worker. "We just want to ensure adequate relief for the displaced people."

That effort will require extreme caution. The Church worker admits that he and his colleagues are stepping into "a minefield" as they try to provide charitable services without running afoul of the government ban on organized social work. The difficulty of the work is complicated by the fact that Christians are heavily represented in some of the areas where ethnic conflict has been most intense. And human-rights groups based outside Myanmar have reported that the government has used extreme repressive measures, including the systemic use of rape as a weapon, to suppress certain ethnic groups.

However, while the government does not allow Christian organizations to engage in organized social work, the regime has been more than willing to accept the help of Church leaders who volunteer to act as mediators in these ethnic conflicts. Bishop Phamo reports that he has twice helped to negotiate a truce between the government army and ethnic rebel organizations. As a result of Church mediation efforts, the guns are now silent in central Myanmar, where the Kareni National Liberation Front agreed to a ceasefire, suspending military efforts against the government regime. The government does recognize our capacity to build peace, and they have been very supportive of our peace ventures," Bishop Phamo reports.


Yet while the government accepts the Christian peacemaking efforts, not all segments of society are willing to tolerate the public presence of the Church, the bishop remarks. He refers to the militant Buddhist leaders, "who consider us as foreigners in this Buddhist country."

"Our people are mostly poor, and they do face discrimination at the hands of the majority," Bishop Phamo says. There is no legal basis for the discrimination that Christians face; it is rather a matter of private choices by the Buddhist majority. Bishop Zahawng argues that because Buddhists generally favor their own co-religionists, the odds of a Christian rising to prominence in the nation's government are "very remote." Bishop Zahawng says simply, "There is a limit to how far you can go."

This discrimination against Christians is not a matter of "state policy," Bishop Phamo observes. He sees the limitations that are informally imposed upon Christians as illustrating the "indirect impact" of living in a society where the majority shares a strong religious and cultural identity. In these circumstances, the bishop believes, "discrimination against 'outsiders' is natural." The followers of Buddhism also have a natural inclination to help each other; thus the country's military rulers have proved eager to please the communities of Buddhist monks, and have provided ample state funding for the upkeep of their monasteries and pagodas. Religion and politics blend easily among the Buddhists, the bishop believes. There are very few Christians in the Burma Socialist Program Party, he says, and he considers it "very, very unlikely" that a member of that party would embrace Christianity. Some Christians take a more cynical view of the actions and attitudes of the military regime. Many critics of the BSPP believe that the regime, led by General Khin Nyunt (who carries the curious title, "Secretary #1"), is deliberately pampering the Buddhist majority in order to consolidate its political base and ward off any threat to the regime that might otherwise arise from the general population. With the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, roaming through the cities of Myanmar trying to revive interest in the restoration of democracy, the military regime (the cynics believe) is trying to woo the Buddhist religious leadership as a means of ensuring the acquiescence of the popular majority.

Whatever the reasons that prompt it, the government's clearly preferential approach to Buddhism has some direct effects for the work of the Church. Buddhist pagodas are being built, with the construction subsidized by government funds, even in predominantly Christian villages where there is no discernible trace of Buddhist tradition. In other places, local government officials--almost invariably Buddhists--find inventive legal obstacles to any plan by Christian groups to buy land or build new churches. MILITARY RULE

In August 1988, a massive grassroots campaign for the restoration of democracy, triggered by student protests, was ruthlessly quashed by the army, which ended the public protests by firing into the ranks of thousands of unarmed protesters. That bloody response brought an end to the protests, but the demonstrations had done serious damage to the military-backed Burma Socialist Program Party regime.

However, the advocates of democracy had very little time to celebrate when the BSSP government was dissolved. Within a matter of weeks, the army staged a coup and set up a new government, naming it the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

Bowing to international pressure, the SLORC government conducted free elections in May 1990. The results were a second stunning blow to the military junta. The SLORC won only 10 of the 485 available seats in the national legislature. The leading opposition group, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept to a clear victory, commanding 392 of the parliamentary seats. (The remaining seats were divided among smaller ethnic parties, some of them Christian in their origins.)

Unfortunately, the election results proved to be irrelevant. Once again the military leadership took matters into its own hands, simply refusing to hand over power to the electoral winners. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest; the regime continued its autocratic rule. In 1997 the military junta gave itself a new name: the State Peace and Development Council. Otherwise the military regime has maintained its unbroken hegemony. The military junta learned its lessons from the democracy movement of the 1980s. Hoping to nip any future student uprisings in the bud, the country's leaders moved most of the country's universities out of the urban centers and into rural areas, making it more difficult for student leaders to work together against the regime. Support for higher education in general was drastically trimmed; the university curriculum was pared down to a few technical subjects; class schedules were cut back so that teaching only took place for a few weeks each year. The secular system of higher education has become so weak that students at some of the Protestant seminaries are now being sought out for employment in Myanmar by international bodies like the UN. Seizing the opening, the Protestant institutions have expanded their own course offerings, training their students in topics such as English-language proficiency and computer programming.

Graduates of these schools--or of the government-run educational system--cannot realistically look for employment opportunities outside Myanmar itself. At the dawn of the third millennium, only a few citizens enjoy the luxury of a passport. An ordinary resident of Myanmar can apply for a passport only after receiving an invitation to visit another country; that invitation must be endorsed by the Myanmar embassy in the host country before it is deemed valid. The process of obtaining permission to travel abroad routinely takes several months, requiring a series of approvals from different government offices, including the Ministry of Religious Affairs. When a Myanmar citizen does travel abroad, his passport is cancelled as soon as he returns home. For the vast majority of people, foreign travel is not even a realistic dream. RELIGIOUS CENSORSHIP

Myanmar has no independent media, in either print or electronic form. The country's two major daily newspapers are both controlled by the government and filled with reports and photos provided by the military regime. Every form of public communication is kept under strict government scrutiny. Even the internet--which has been a boon to the cause of democracy in so many other countries--remains under draconian restrictions. A handful of approved organizations have internet access, but their online activities must be sanctioned by the regime. Access to web sites that are considered common and inoffensive throughout the rest of the world is blocked in Myanmar. This reporter tried to log onto the "Hotmail" messaging system; the computer screen quickly flashed: "Banned Site."

Such strict censorship, and the vice-like grip that the military regime has on the mass media, have crippled Christian publishing ventures. Very few Church publications are available in print; those few that can be found are often months out of date, since they cannot be made available to the public until they have been cleared by the "literary scrutiny board." Even after the general content of a message has been approved by the Religious Affairs ministry, the literary censors continue to trim away whatever they find offensive.

The literary censors, who carry out their responsibilities with meticulous care, maintain a list of words that cannot be used because they might be perceived as carrying some remote political connotation. Christian publishing efforts must also overcome the fact that certain words are restricted for use by Buddhists alone. Thus for example the censors will not allow Christians to use the word yahan, meaning priest or monk in their publications; only Buddhist monks may be identified by that term. Last year the government board turned down a Protestant group's bid to send out a simple, general Christmas greeting.

That the Myanmar government represses the Church, then, is a fact beyond dispute. And yet the Church continues to grow.

[AUTHOR ID] Anto Akkara, a free-lance journalist based in New Delhi and a frequent contributor to CWR, recently returned from a visit to Myanmar.

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