Myanmar Archbishop: Church ‘Must Promote Civic Participation’

The by-elections in Myanmar on April 1 brought home the issue of civic responsibility in ways that the previous national polls in 2010 could not do.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner who spearheaded the landslide electoral victory in 1990, only to see the results ignored by the country’s military rulers, became a member of the lower house of parliament.

Forty-two other NLD candidates won in constituencies across Myanmar in an election that was, by and large, considered free and fair.

But after years of political oppression, during which engaging in political activities invited a prison sentence or worse, the people of Myanmar are taking an active if limited role in shaping their future as a nation struggling to embrace a democratic system of governance.

Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon says this opening, engendered by recent political reforms by President Thein Sein and a warming in relations with the West, bodes well for the Church in Myanmar to help promote active civic participation and reconciliation.

In particular, Archbishop Bo says conflicts that have plagued Myanmar’s ethnic regions for decades must end if democracy is ever to flourish.

“There will be peace only when there is reconciliation, and development will be achieved only when there is true and genuine peace,” he said last week.

The prelate also praised Suu Kyi’s sacrifices and her commitment to the people of Myanmar, saying her influence will extend well beyond the small rural constituency of Khawmu in the Irrawaddy delta which she now represents.

“I suppose her voice will be heard not only throughout the country but also in the whole world.”

While her victory in the by-elections has been widely celebrated across the country, it has also led some to consider what wider role she may play in the government in coming years.

Archbishop Bo says he hopes the current constitution, which guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military, will be amended, and that Suu Kyi may one day play a much larger political role.

While political reforms have inspired many to hope for genuine and lasting change, Archbishop Bo says much remains to be done in teaching people what it means to be free – a role he sees as a good fit for the Church.

Five decades ago, Catholics took an active role in nation building, in education, health and in so many social fields, he says.

“True freedom is to be able to do what is right, honest, sincere, and pure, and not to do simply what one wants to do.”

He added that respect for just laws and respect of others and their different religions will all be challenges during the continuing process of reform.

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