Where the Church can serve in Myanmar
Myanmar is at a crossroads; an exciting point in its history as a nation. One of the poorest, most ethnically diverse and conflict-prone societies in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is now emerging from decades of isolation. Changes are afoot, as the release, election to parliament and recent travel abroad of Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrate. A parliament is in place; interim elections passed without major offences. Many political prisoners have been released. The demands to halt construction of the Irrawaddy Dam project appear to have been heeded.
Borders are opening to tourists and investors, and censorship of the media appears to have evaporated.
Poverty alleviation, a topic that could not be discussed a few years ago, is on the agenda of the parliament, and experts have been invited to advise and plan on education, health, governance and the economy.
The changes are being recognised and welcomed. Sanctions imposed by the USA and European Union are being lifted and diplomatic relations being restored with many nations. Businesses are seeing in Myanmar a new market to target.
All this is promising, but the country faces enormous challenges.
Myanmar is poorly equipped to engage with the tide of new interests. Poverty remains entrenched and widespread. An immense and possibly the biggest challenge for the country now is to build capacity among the young. Following the 1988 student uprising, universities were dismantled, with devastating long term consequences. Less than 1% of Myanmar’s GDP has been invested in education over the last 50 years, and now a whole education system must be rebuilt. Few people have employable skills.
The Jesuits have run two educational institutions in the country for the past 10 years, but these are inadequate in the face of the new challenges and opportunities sweeping across Myanmar. We need to consolidate and build them up in terms of personnel, pedagogy and resources. This can only be done with the support of expert educators and partners such as Jesuit and other universities around the world.
But the country’s education system needs much more. There is also a lot to be done in the areas of health and social welfare.
As social conditions in Myanmar change, the emergence of civil society activities means the Churches can engage in new ways of service. The time is right for Churches to assume a greater role. For the first time in decades, the Churches can have a voice and can contribute increasingly to building civil society. And they must use this voice. Yet they are not well prepared for this. The decades of ethnic conflict have affected the Churches deeply, since many of the minorities are Christian, especially Baptists and Catholics, while the Burman majority population generally adheres to Theravada Buddhism.
There is a huge displacement of ethnic minority peoples and many are still fighting for their survival and their rights. Indigenous people have also been displaced without compensation or care because of massive exploitation of resources. Healthcare is inadequate. Fast spreading diseases like HIV/AIDs and tuberculosis abound, and health needs, especially of mother and child and of women in general, are unmet. There is a need for greater care for the youth as, across the country, young people drift to unsafe places, to drugs, and abroad where they are exploited and abused. The social change associated with consumer cultures tends to undermine faith, morals and family life.
Until now the reform in Myanmar is a “top down” process. Nonetheless it allows space for civil society. Church leaders now have new opportunities to emerge from ethnic enclaves, to speak and act openly in favour of peace and the common good, and seek grounds to overcome distrust.
Now is a time for great solidarity with the people of Myanmar as they rebuild and regain their rightful place among nations.
Mark Raper SJ
July 15, 2012