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Inside St Mary's Cathedral in Yangon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Inside St Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal joins 2 other new red hats from Asia

YANGON – “I was in Calcutta, my niece phoned me to say that she saw my name on a list of the names of the cardinals announced by the Holy Father. I thought she was joking at first.” said Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal.

That was how the 66 year old Archbishop of Yangon found out back on Jan. 4 that he was to be one of 20 new cardinals appointed by Pope Francis. “He wants to show the universality of the whole church and he wants to hear the voice from the different people,” said Cardinal Bo, assessing the pope’s motives for naming new cardinals from Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Myanmar, which last year marked 5 centuries of Catholic Church presence in the country.

Asia now has 19 red hats, including Luis Tagle of Manila, a man touted as a possible contender to succeed Benedict XVI in the run up to the 2013 conclave that elected Francis.

Bo lauded his Filipino counterpart, who has since been named head of the Catholic aid agency Caritas, but doubted that anything like an “Asian bloc” would come up during the next conclave. “In the end we would vote as individuals,” Bo said.

The new cardinal will travel to Rome in October to participate in a 3 week meeting during which church leaders will discuss family and marital issues.

Bo said that there will be no changes to church teaching on marriage, despite speculation to the contrary.

“The basic principles will not change,” said Bo. “There will perhaps be more mercy and understanding towards divorced and remarried people,” he added.

Vatican-watches speculating that Catholic teaching on marriage could be up for negotiation have based their views partly on on Pope Francis’s approachable, off-the-cuff style, Bo believes.

“The messenger of the Good News should not have the facial expression of one coming back from a funeral,” he said, paraphrasing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Guadium The Joy of the Gospel).

To infer doctrinal change from Francis’ manner is superficial, the new cardinal counsels. Appearances aside, Bo explains, Francis “says the same thing as the popes of the past.”

Cardinal Bo praised Pope Francis for his emphasis on transparency in the Church, both in sorting out financial-management issues and in dealing with priestly sexual abuse.

As Cardinal Bo said, “We have to show humility and zero tolerance to deal with this, and the Catholic Church should set an example to the world for protecting children.”

Myanmar is home to only 800,000 Catholics, spread across 16 dioceses. Though there are hints of a Catholic presence in Burma going back to the 13th century, the first church in the country dates to 1514 — founded by missionaries accompanying Portuguese traders.

But between now and October, Bo’s priority will likely be his homeland – a long-troubled country only recently out of 5 decades of economically-disastrous army rule.

“The poor people, not much attention is being given to them,” Bo continued, assessing life in Myanmar’s countryside, where farmers live hand-to-mouth and where clean water and electricity remain rare outside towns and cities.

But changes have come to Myanmar. Political prisoners were freed en masse in 2012 and 2013, foreign investment is increasing rapidly, the country is now on many Asia travellers to-do lists, and a long-pervasive climate of fear has diminished.

“At least you don’t have MI [military intelligence] following you everywhere anymore,” as Cardinal Bo put it, laughing.

All the same, it’s a stage-managed transition, Bo feels, with the old military guard pulling strings behind the scenes.

“General Than Shwe, he doesn’t appear anymore, but he is very much behind everything,” Bo said, discussing the last military dictator to rule Myanmar prior to 2011’s choreographed handover to a civilian administration.

The loosening of past restrictions has enabled not only long suppressed democrats and media unprecedented, if limited freedoms, but has simultaneously facilitated a rise in chauvinism. Buddhist hardliners have been pushing to have aspects of family law overhauled, aiming to curb conversions from Buddhism and prevent polygamy.

Around 20% of Myanmar’s married Catholics are in mixed marriages, Cardinal Bo said. He is not, however, concerned about the proposed legislation. “Fifty percent of Buddhists or other Christians who marry a Catholic in turn convert to Catholicism here,” he explained.

“Conversion, for us, is a matter of personal concern, and the Church will just carry on [regardless of the new laws].”

The legislative changes are widely seen as targeting the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims – particularly the hard-pressed Rohingya, an ethnic minority numbering around 1 million who are denied citizenship by a Myanmar government that regards them as foreigners.

Cardinal Bo has spoken up for the Rohingya in the past, calling on the government to grant them citizenship. He says he will continue to do so, making him a rare Burmese public figure who criticises discrimination against the Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s best-known politician and herself the victim of human rights violations in the past, has sidestepped defening the Rohingya, who are now at the center of humanitarian crisis that sees thousands of boat people adrift on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

“She is really careful,” Bo said, discussing Suu Kyi’s apparent reluctance to defend minority rights, which Bo suggests could be down to her fears of losing the majority Buddhist vote in Myanmar’s national elections, due to take place in around 6 months time.

“Wirathu [a notorious anti-Muslim Buddhist monk based in Mandalay] and the Buddhist community would go against her, so much so that seems afraid to make any statement,” said Bo.

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