Catholicism has never been easy in Myanmar. The Church first arrived in 1514, but failed to find enduring success, as fledgling missions were either driven out or abandoned. Not until 2017 did the Vatican finally manage to establish formal diplomatic relations with this hermetic Southeast Asian nation commonly known as Burma.
Roughly the size of Texas and holding a population of about 57 million, Myanmar is an extremely diverse country with 135 officially-recognized ethnic groups (along with many unrecognized ethnic groups). Almost 90 percent of Myanmar’s population practices Theravada Buddhism. About 6 percent of the population is Christian and most of them are Protestant, largely owing to the success of Protestant missionaries during the British colonial era.
Resistance to British encroachment led to three Anglo-Burmese wars in the nineteenth century. Myanmar officially received independence in 1948. Ever since, internecine warfare between the ruling government and ethnic minorities (who often consist of Christians) has plagued the country.
A mismanaged economy combined with rigid isolationism has mired much of the populace in chronic poverty. Such poverty is especially prevalent in areas far removed from such population centers as Mandalay, Naypyidaw (the current capital city), and Yangon (also known as Rangoon), which was the capital city until 2006. These remote regions tend to have a disproportionately high rate of both Protestants and Catholics.
Of Myanmar’s overall population, slightly more than 1 percent are Catholic, and most of them belong to marginalized ethnic minorities. Economically disadvantaged even by Burmese standards, their faith further estranges them from mainstream society. And yet this faith has endured through hunger, hardship, and a succession of largely-repressive governments.
The majority of Catholics in Myanmar come from such ethnic groups as the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni. As dual ethnic-religious minorities, they “find themselves disenfranchised” and largely feel like second-class citizens, says Fr. Michael Lian, who leads the Chin Burmese Ministry at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Kansas City, Kansas. Before coming to the U.S., he was ordained in the Diocese of Hakha in western Myanmar’s Chin State.
Catholicism is rare among the majority Burmese ethnic group (known as the “Bamar” or the “Burman”). Fr. Lian says that converting from Buddhism to Catholicism is “very difficult” in Myanmar, where the Buddhist faith is heavily integrated into Burmese nationalism. Basically, if you convert then “you betray your nationality,” he adds.
Lian says Catholics and Protestants in Myanmar have a generally good relationship, despite the occasional theological dispute. Both groups have a shared experience of longstanding tensions with the Burmese government. And much greater dangers have surfaced recently: On Feb. 1, 2021, the Burmese military (also known as the Tatmadaw) seized power in a coup d’état, arresting both state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint.
The previous decade had seen Myanmar transition to a civilian-led government, which had resulted in more individual freedom, along with a reduction in poverty and a rise in international investment. The country was in a gradual state of improvement, though still far from ideal. Lian describes this government as a “quasi-democracy” with considerable military-enforced restrictions. Many Burmese and outside observers, however, had been optimistic about the country’s trajectory. Ever since this February, though, such hopes have crumbled before the ominous reality of “full military rule,” says Lian, who adds, “The coup has abruptly ended Myanmar’s faulty and fragile push towards democracy.”
The military takeover has intensified preexisting problems. Lian says the “deadly collision of a coup with a pandemic” has claimed significant numbers of Catholic lives. He adds how Catholics who demonstrated against the coup have “been closely watched by the military.” Additionally, Catholics inhabiting regions with a history of armed resistance now find themselves in a “seriously life-threatening” predicament. Recent months have seen the military attack both Catholic and Protestant churches with lethal force.
The Catholic Bishops of Myanmar have been pleading for a “humanitarian corridor,” so that many thousands of displaced persons can receive shelter and food. Officials from the United Nations have said that mass death from starvation is a potential outcome.
In more stable times, the foremost service the Church in Myanmar provides is education, including the education of disabled children. Among additional services, the Church also looks after many disabled adults, particularly those who were maimed by landmines during the nation’s protracted conflict which some have called the “world’s longest-running civil war.”
Recently, the Church has shifted its attention to combating COVID-19. Lian cites the formation of the Myanmar Catholic Humanitarian Assistance Initiative (MCHAI), which provides food, medical assistance, and other emergency services across the nation’s Catholic dioceses.
Myanmar has three archdioceses and 13 additional dioceses, each of them dedicated in large part towards serving a regional ethnic minority. Though these ethnic groups tend to have their own indigenous languages and dialects, Mass in Myanmar is typically performed in the Burmese language. Each diocese has its own minor seminary, but all of them have been inactive for almost two years, due to COVID and the military coup.
Indeed, the present is not a favorable time for Myanmar, and Lian acknowledges that the Church there is facing severe challenges. However, these embattled Catholics show resilient faith, which Lian says is very much present among the younger generation.
“We are people who live with patience and hope,” he says. “We believe there is a possible great future for the Church in Myanmar despite our incapacity to overcome the current situation.”
Only four years ago, Pope Francis made the first-ever papal visit to Myanmar. He probably won’t be heading back anytime soon. The borders are closed, the outside world is unwelcome, and a military junta now reigns supreme, free to abuse its citizens.
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