Columbans stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar

The world is still in shock at what happened in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 when the military declared a state of emergency and took over the newly-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi just as the members of parliament were about to hold their first meeting, writes Columban missionary Fr Kevin O’Neill.

Parliamentarians were all arrested in the state capital of Naypyidaw including the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the President Win Myint both of the National League for Democracy party (NLD). Some members of parliament have since been released but not the senior leaders.

Civilian government officials were also asked to vacate and move out of their government offices and residencies.

Residents in Yangon and in other parts of the country have staged nightly noise protests by banging on pots and pans. Government workers, including doctors and nurses, are calling for acts of civil disobedience. The local people are also calling for the boycott of products and services of known military-owned companies.

Under its constitution, the government of Myanmar, in both its Upper and Lower houses, is made up by two-thirds democratically elected individuals and one-third by members from the military-appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of the military. In the recent elections, the National League for Democracy party (NLD) had a landslide victory.

The military was shocked that they did so poorly in the elections so used the excuse of fraud to overthrow the Government. The chief of the Burmese army announced a new cabinet with members including generals, ex-military personnel and some members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (whose members are also ex-military) who ran in the last election and lost.

Myanmar has been making strides towards democracy since the 2015 election with economic development and reforms in many sectors of the country including education and health. Myanmar is still facing an increasing number of Covid-19 cases. They have just started their vaccination program. The coup will stop all these developments making the people worried and anxious about their future and their democracy.

People were initially in a state of shock. They are sad and angry now. They cannot believe that the army is bringing the country back to its dark past. Many people died in the last pro-democracy protests of 1988. This coup is reminding many of those difficult years.

The people of Myanmar have suffered for a long time under military rule. In many parts of the country conflicts between the government army and ethnic minorities continue.

In the Kachin state, where Columban missionaries work, we support the local church with its outreach and education programs to the Internally Displaced Peoples who have had to leave their home villages due to ongoing conflict over many years and who now live in refugee camps under very poor, simple and cramped conditions.

Columbans are also engaged with work at a drug rehabilitation centre; with the college education of students from poor backgrounds; with youth; orphans; as well as education and advocacy in the areas of justice, peace and ecology.

In his message to the people of Myanmar, Cardinal Charles Bo wrote: “I have watched with sadness the moments of darkness in our history and watched with hope the resilience of our people in their struggle for dignity. I write with love towards all, seeking a durable solution, praying for an end forever to the periodic darkness that envelops our dear nation.”

In his message to the international community, the Cardinal wrote: “We are grateful for your concern and appreciate your sense of shock. We are grateful for your compassionate accompaniment at this moment.”

The Columban missionaries working in Myanmar are all safe and ask for prayers for the people of Myanmar.

Columban Fr Kevin O’Neill is assigned to China, but is currently working at St Columban’s Mission Society, Melbourne.