The bishop of Burma's largest city has written a New Year's message encouraging the Burmese to remain united and to strive for peace in their homeland.
“We are preparing for the dawn of a new era of freedom, democracy, justice, peace and hope…a new era of fraternity,” wrote Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon.
“There are many reasons for hope … We are just at the very beginning of a new chapter” in our country's history, he said.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled by a military junta from 1962 to 2011, and has a history of ethnic strife, corruption, and human rights violations.
But the 2011 dissolution of the junta ushered in reforms, to which Archbishop Bo alluded.
“In the past two years the restrictions on freedom of expression have been relaxed, there is more space for civil society, the media and political actors, there have been preliminary steps towards peace in the ethnic states, and many political prisoners have been released.”
He highlighted the release of political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was elected to parliament in 2012.
“These steps encourage us to see the prospect of a new dawn,” Archbishop Bo declared. “For the first time in more than fifty years, there are reason to be hopeful for Myanmar.”
He attributed the improvements in Burmese society to those who participated in protests against the junta and its socialist policies in 1988.
“Some of them were willing to lay down their lives … they gave their yesterday so that our today may be free, and the tomorrow of Myanmar may be justice oriented.”
The archbishop encouraged continued commitment to change, however, noting that “this is just the very beginning of the beginning.”
Archbishop Bo condemned the persistent violence that has plagued the nation, including persecution of the Rohingya, rape, human trafficking, looting of churches, destruction of mosques, and attacks on civilians in Kachin state.
The Rohingya are a minority group who practice Islam and who have long been persecuted by the country's Buddhist majority; rioting displaced 125,000 Rohingya in 2012.
“We hear of the tragedy of an entire people, known as 'Rohingyas', treated as if they were not human,” Archbishop Bo lamented, adding that “as we begin to enjoy more freedom of speech, some have used this to preach hatred and incite violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
He appealed to the Buddhist principles of compassion (karuna) and loving-kindness (metta) to be shown to the Rohingya, who are denied Burmese citizenship and treated as illegal immigrants.
“Genuine peace will only be achieved,” he said, through “a political dialogue leading to a political settlement for Myanmar's ethnic nationalities … real, true peace can only be achieved through a revolution in our hearts, a renewal of our minds and a rediscovery of the value of fraternity.”
The archbishop said, “our task is to rebuild not only the destroyed buildings, but destroyed relationships…our task, individually and in community, is to rebuild our hearts.”
“Whatever our religion, we need to refocus our minds on our common humanity and our fraternity as peoples of Myanmar.”
Archbishop Bo, noting the diversity of Burma's people, said this “is something to celebrate,” and that the Burmese are called to “build a nation in which every person … feels at home, has a stake in the country's future, is treated with equal respect and equal rights, and is accepted and care for by their neighbours.”
He concluded, saying, “I wish all my brothers and sisters, of all religions and ethnicities, throughout our nation a truly happy and blessed New Year … let 2014 mark a new era not only of greater freedom, but of fraternity, throughout Myanmar, and in growing in fraternity, we can secure lasting peace and prosperity.”