There was widespread joy and celebration at the end of over 50 years of military rule, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept the board in Burma’s 2015 elections.
After decades of the oppression and violence of military rule, there was a promise of hope: the chance for a freer, brighter future - especially for the country’s religious and ethnic communities. Sadly, the reality today stands in stark contrast to the post-election hopes of 2015. But we will never stop praying and campaigning for justice and freedom for all Burma’s people.
'No one would have predicted where we would be today’
In the run-up to Burma’s elections last November, CSW’s Senior Analyst for East Asia, Benedict Rogers, explained: ‘Burma approached the crossroads of democratisation, peace-building and national reconciliation – and went into reverse…
‘The gains that were made in terms of human rights have largely been lost – today, once again, there is the tragedy of political prisoners, refugees, media censorship, religious intolerance, continuing military offensives against ethnic groups involving war crimes and crimes against humanity and, most shockingly, a genocide [of the Rohingya Muslims] that Aung San Suu Kyi herself went to the International Court of Justice in the Hague last year to defend...Most fair-minded people would acknowledge the limitations she was under. But almost no one would have predicted where we would be today.’
As the elections drew near Burma was battling with a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, making voting more difficult and more dangerous. Calls for the elections to be postponed in the face of the pandemic were ignored. Instead, the Union Election Committee unilaterally decided to cancel voting in 56 townships in ethnic areas, using the conflict as the pretext, disenfranchising more than a million people.
When you take into account the internally displaced, the refugees who are still on Burma’s borders and have not been able to return home, and the entire Rohingya population, the number of disenfranchised tops two million - and the disenchanted far exceeds it.
A cause for hope: ‘Be a good Samaritan to a wounded humanity…’
But there is still cause for hope. The Church in Burma has been a powerful force of love across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the risks and challenges, churches have given practical help to many in need, as well as undertaking their own advocacy. As part of Religions for Peace (an international interfaith NGO) church leaders issued a passionate appeal for a ceasefire by all parties. CSW echoed their ceasefire calls in all of our advocacy in the UK, at the United Nations and European Union.
In the crowded camps for Internally Displaced Persons, the Church distributed protective equipment, helped with preventive measures and and sanitised the camps. His Eminence Cardinal Bo, Archbishop of Rangoon, told us, ‘Mercifully the camps are spared of the expected spread.’ And as the second wave hit, Cardinal Bo encouraged the Church to continue to ‘be a Good Samaritan to a wounded humanity’, reminding them that ‘love has no lockdown’.
‘Let our hearts be strengthened with the boldness of faith…’
As we reflect on what lies ahead for Burma, we hold fast to the words of Cardinal Bo in the run-up to the elections and in the face of COVID-19, saying, ‘During these challenging times, let our hearts be strengthened with the boldness of faith. Let us joyfully proclaim with Apostle Paul: “If God is with us who can be against us!”’
The last five years may have been disappointing, the challenges may seem insurmountable, but our prayer is that they are but a prelude to a brighter future for a country that has suffered too much for too long.