When opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, despite the international jubilation, it quickly became clear that Myanmar’s military junta were in no mood to compromise and concede ground to pro-democracy campaigners. Hopes for change have been muted, kept alive only by the continued engagement of Suu Kyi as well as international human rights organizations in defense of the Burmese people of all ethnicities and faiths, including Christians.
Burma’s Christians are singled out for particular persecution: not only for their minority status in a Buddhist dominated culture, but moreover because certain ethnic minorities such as the Karen and the Shan have been fighting the central government for recognition and the right to self-determination (both Catholic and Protestant communities are found in concentrated numbers among the ethnic Chin and Karen groups).
Whether active or only caught up in the tensions between warring parties, all Christians are labeled dissidents by the regime and hence suffer intimidation and outright persecution. The military government restricts evangelization work as well as initiatives to import and distribute Christian books. All publications are subject to controls and censorship. “Even though we can pray, celebrate Mass and recite the Rosary, there is no true religious freedom,” said a group of Yangon (Rangoon) Catholics. They went on to state that priests were not allowed to discuss or pray for peace, justice or improved human rights. The group added that people were living in fear of arrest or torture. “We are all subject to the law,” they said, “but the junta is above it and uses every method to silence the population”.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, there are hopeful signs such as the recent high-level US visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as a visit by Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino on December, 2011, marking the 100th anniversary of Rangoon Cathedral. Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, a Buddhist, was in attendance. On this occasion, Pope Benedikt XVI called on Martino to transmit “a message of goodwill” to political and religious authorities in Myanmar, where the military dictatorship has made a number of gestures of greater openness in recent months.
It is too early to tell, however, whether the goodwill gestures by the military regime indicate a serious political will for reform and full respect for human rights, or simply a shift towards state-controlled capitalism.