The persecution of the Rohingya people of Myanmar is in the news again. Newly-released satellite photos seem to confirm their claims of a village massacre – denied by the Burmese government. Mark Raper is an Australian Jesuit, sent last year to join the Jesuit Mission in Myanmar. Speaking to Irish Jesuit Communications recently, Mark says this largest country of mainland Southeast Asia, bordering China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh, is “exotic and entrancing”, with its glittering pagodas and hundreds of ethnic cultures. “And the people of Myanmar are open, welcoming and respectful,” he adds.
For these reasons, says Mark, the Rohingya violence came as a shock. The massive, sudden movement of over half a million refugees from Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, into Bangladesh in the last months of 2017 drew the attention of the world to a country that had been in self-isolation for decades. Horrific images of burning villages and distressed women, children and men appeared in all media. Aung San Suu Kyi, previously praised as an icon of bravery in the face of oppression, was accused by many of silence and even complicity in what appeared to be a planned ethnic cleansing.
“But many critics seem unaware that this crisis has been decades in the making and in a territory where the new civilian government has little or no control or access,” Mark notes. He says this persecution of the Rohingya people was not a sudden, once-off event. “Twenty-five years ago the Jesuit Refugee Service had drawn attention to their plight and even had a programme for the refugees in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh in the early 1990s. The long history of neglect and mismanagement in northern Rakhine State have led to what Kofi Annan described as a combination of development, human rights and security crises,” he adds.
In the lead up to the 2015 elections, anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim propaganda and abuse was deliberately escalated, though it had been simmering for a number of years. A fundamentalist, nationalist approach against Muslims was employed by the Burmese military’s political arm. “Their attacks were directed at undermining the popularity Aung San Suu Kyi. The military’s political arm called themselves nationalist in contrast to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party which they portrayed as pro-Muslim.
The NLD party, however, won a resounding victory, and Myanmar’s first civilian government assumed office in early 2016. “Many rejoiced,” says Mark. Aung San Suu Kyi, beloved of many social justice groups in Ireland and around the world, and who had been imprisoned for the best part of twenty years, was now the leader of the civilian arm of government of the Union of Myanmar. “It was the end of the ‘Burmese way of socialism’,” Mark notes, “a brutal six decades in which education, health and social services were destroyed, a thriving economy withered, dissent was harshly put down and vast numbers of people, driven by poverty or lack of secure land tenure, drifted to the crowded cities to seek factory employment or went abroad as migrant labour.” Given this context, Mark believes that the new government arrangement is unquestionably an improvement.
But recovery will take decades, he cautions. “For a people long deprived of their own rights, recognition of the rights of others must also be learned.” The NLD’s avowed priorities are for developing health and education services and he believes there is slow but sure development in this regard. “Yet it is still a façade of democracy,” he says, adding, “Behind the screen the military remain immensely powerful, as can be seen in the northern Rakhine crisis. Unfortunately the military are perceived, especially by the ethnic minority peoples, as a class apart from normal citizens.”
An outline of the Myanmar Constitution, introduced by the military government in 2008, reveals the challenges facing any truly democratic project. The Constitution gives 25% of seats in the parliament to the military, yet to pass laws, it rules that more than 75% of votes are needed. Moreover, the military control the three major ministries of Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence, and they retain the potential to cancel the constitution and resume power when they judge that there is a security risk.
Mark says that a disturbing requirement of the 2008 constitution is that the administration of the entire nation, its civil service, collection of taxes and many other official functions, fall under an administrative department in the Home Affairs Ministry, which reports not to the civilian side of government, but rather directly to the Commander-in-Chief of the military. There are effectively two separate governments. The NLD dominated civilian government is like a body paralysed from the neck down with no ability to move the hands or feet, according to one key parliamentarian.
There is no discrimination against the Churches, says Mark, adding that the Myanmar people are deeply respectful of all religions and religious persons, “and they understand solidarity and generously commit to building community.”
But since Christian believers are mostly found among the ethnic minorities, they do experience discrimination precisely because of their ethnicity. While the most inflamed of the current crises is in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar is experiencing multiple humanitarian crises, mainly related with conflicts with ethnic minorities in territories rich with resources.
When Pope Francis’ visited Myanmar and Bangladesh last November, he highlighted the suffering of the Rohingya people. The debate around whether or not he would or should mention the word “Rohingya” was covered by media outlets all over the world. In the end the Pope did not directly refer to the Rohingya in public by name but, according to Mark, it is believed he spoke strongly in private about the plight of this ethnic Muslim group. In Bangladesh, in an encounter with Rohingya refugees, the Pope said: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya”.
In this time of significant change in Myanmar, the Jesuits have opted to support the local Church and to contribute to the people of Myanmar through education. “The young are eager for good education, and when they come together in our institutions, readily accept the joy and strengths of ethnic and religious diversity,” he says.
When Mark went to the Myanmar mission he joined 51 men including five novices. More than half of these Jesuits are still in their studies. Four Myanmar Jesuits are ordained priests, twenty are scholastics, and five brothers are in studies.The Jesuit Mission is present in four dioceses, with six communities or sub-communities and nine different works, mostly dedicated to education, formation of the Jesuits and social and pastoral service.
The Jesuits actually returned to Myanmar in 1998 when the then Superior General Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach instructed the superior of the Thai Region to “establish the Society in Myanmar”. The three Jesuits who were missioned to Myanmar that year began a candidates program in a disused building in Payaphyu, near Taunggyi, offered by the local Archbishop Mathias U Shwe, says Mark. A year later the first novice master arrived and began the novitiate in the year 1999 in the same location. Soon after, the Society gained possession of a property in Taunggyi for an educational work and began what continues today as St Aloysius Gonzaga Institute of Higher Learning.
The next project was another school in Yangon, Campion English Language Institute, more recently a Community College has been opened in the slums of Yangon. At the request of the Cardinal, the Jesuits are committed to building a Myanmar Leadership Institute, intended to form aspiring and emerging leaders. “Timely response by the Jesuits to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 led to significant engagement in helping build the Church’s engagement with the poor and service of justice,” he says.
The Myanmar Catholic Church comprises 16 dioceses, with some 700,000 faithful, a minority in a country of 56 million. There are some 2,000 religious, 700 priests and an army of catechists and volunteers. Christian churches exist almost exclusively among the ethnic minorities while the Burman majority, from whom the military are mostly drawn, overwhelmingly follow Theravada Buddhism. For centuries there have been Muslim communities as a part of Myanmar society and a smaller proportion of Hindu people.
For Mark, being missioned to Myanmar at this stage in his life is a gift. “The Jesuits are truly blessed to be in solidarity with the Burmese people at this crucial moment of their history,” he concludes.