Myanmar’s top religious leaders must hold a dialogue aimed at ending sectarian violence in the country that has undermined its transition to democracy, Charles Maung Bo, the Buddhist-majority nation’s first Catholic cardinal, said Wednesday.
Speaking three days after the 66-year-old archbishop was named as cardinal by Pope Francis along with 19 others, Bo said the country’s heads of faith were key to controlling religious conflict in Myanmar, including Buddhist-Muslim violence that has left at least 240 dead since 2012.
“I want to work for my country to attain true democracy and I want the world to see our country as a peaceful nation—if we, all religious leaders, could hold friendly discussions and work together, we can achieve peace,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview.
“All people in Myanmar respect their religions and they listen to their religious leaders, so if the leaders meet with the people and hold frequent discussions with them, the situation will get better,” he said.
Bo, who will travel to the Vatican to assume his official duties at a papal ceremony on Feb. 14, also called on Myanmar’s religious leaders to refrain from stirring up extremism.
“No religious leader should promote hate speech, and the government should take action against any leader from any religion who does so.”
If the government wants Myanmar to enjoy development, it must first address underlying injustices suffered by certain communities that have fueled the sectarian violence and contributed to instability in the country, Bo said.
“The most important thing in our country is achieving peace. If we have peace, we can develop,” he said.
“But to get peace, it is important to have justice. As long as people are poor and live with injustice, we won’t have peace.”
Bo said he would strive to alleviate the injustice of poverty in Myanmar, where only around one percent of the country’s 51 million people are Catholics, as an extension of the work of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
But President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government—which took power from the former military junta in 2011—must do more to protect human rights, end fighting in Myanmar’s remote ethnic areas, and improve the education system, to level the playing field for the country’s varied communities, he said.
Nation’s first cardinal
Bo, who was ordained as a priest in 1976, was nominated and installed as Archbishop of Yangon in 2003.
His Jan. 4 appointment as cardinal comes amid growing religious intolerance in Myanmar despite democratic reform introduced by Thein Sein’s administration.
Violence targeting Muslims of the Rohingya ethnic minority by members of the country’s Buddhist majority have left hundreds dead since 2012.
According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, Bo raised eyebrows in his New Year’s Day address last year when he proposed granting citizenship for members of the Rohingya Muslim community born inside the country.
He has called for the protection of rights for all ethnicities and religious faiths, and warned about the growing influence of extreme Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, adding that the government should bring to justice those who incite discrimination and violence.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.