By Robin Gomes
Myanmar continues to reel under the February 2 military coup, exacerbated now by a devastating 3rd wave of the pandemic amid a critical shortage in the supply of oxygen. The country’s leading churchman on Monday called on all parties in the impoverished nation to stop every conflict and “come together for the good of all” and “save lives”.
“Covid is waging a war against our people with a ferocity unknown to our people. Thousands are infected, hundreds are buried unwept and unsung, hurriedly buried in crowded cemeteries. Day and night our people wait for oxygen in crowded streets,” bemoaned Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon.
Martyr’s Day plea
The cardinal, who is president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar CBCM), made use of the national Martyr’s Day, Monday, to appeal yet again for peace in the impoverished nation. Martyr’s Day commemorates the assassination of General Aung San and other leaders of the pre-independence interim government on July 19, 1947.
Recalling the assassination, Cardinal Bo said, “Their sacrifice in every blood was shed to make this a country a great country.” “As the Covid spirals out of control, inflicting fear, anxiety and death,” he said, “the only way we can pay homage to the martyrs’ sacrifice, is to come together as one nation against the pandemic.” “This is not the time for inflicting wounds. This is the time to heal,” he emphasized.
The ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Gen. Aung San, and her elected government by the military over 5 months ago, has thrown the nation into chaos with nationwide protests and strikes demanding the restoration of the government and the release of their leader.
There have been no signs of a letup in the brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military on its opponents in a bid to consolidate its hold on power. Many of the protesters have taken up to arm themselves. Meanwhile, the military’s offensive has widened, re-igniting its old conflicts with some of the armed ethnic organizations as well as independent civil resistance groups. Thousands of innocent civilians have been displaced by the conflict.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an activists' group that documents the casualties of the protests, security forces have killed at least 914 people since the start of the coup.
Too many tears
Cardinal Bo, who is also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), pleaded for an end to every conflict. “The only war we need to wage is against the lethal invisible virus, which proved to be invincible even to superpowers of the world.” He said the country “has seen too many tears recently”. “Can we afford war and conflict and displacement now? It is time to raise an army of volunteers, armed with medical kits to reach out to our much suffering people.”
The 72-year-old cardinal commended the “graceful Myanmar people” for tiding over the first two waves of the pandemic, by reaching out to people in need. He said the generosity of young people helping the care centres and the heroism of the frontline health workers have “moved us to tears”. He said, “It is time to come together to celebrate our unity in service. We are capable of doing it again.”
Divided, we bury thousands
“United we save lives; divided we will bury thousands. History will be the harshest judge if we fail in compassion,” Cardinal Bo said, appealing to the military authorities to ensure that all healthcare workers and young people can help overcome the “existential threat” facing the nation.
Covid, conflict, collapsed economy
Earlier on Sunday, Cardinal Bo made a similar plea saying “starvation, anxiety and fear” are overwhelming the people, who are like sheep without a shepherd. In his homily at Mass, he pointed to the 3 “enormous and staggering” challenges of Covid-19, the conflict and the collapse of the economy” that the nation has been facing in the last five months.
The military-controlled Health Ministry on Sunday 5,285 fresh cases and 231 deaths from a record 233 on Saturday. It registered its highest daily infections on July 14 with 7083 cases. However, doctors and funeral services say the real toll is much higher, and crematoriums are overloaded. According to Reuters, the total official death toll has risen 50 per cent already this month to 5,000 (July 18) with the spread of the Delta variant that has also surged elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Drop all guns
“But now every breadth has become a challenge. Day and night, thousands are struggling to breathe,” he said referring to the acute shortage of oxygen cylinders as Covid-19 cases surge. Cardinal Bo estimates at least 20 per cent of the population and around 90 per cent of the towns have been infected. It is not apocalypse as yet, but he warned, “if there is no conversion of hearts, many thousands will be buried in the coming months”.
He called on the military leaders “who wish to rule this land” to be “the first and foremost shepherds” like Jesus. “Let all those who hold the guns, in the name of the Lord,” the cardinal pleaded, “drop all guns, bring medical care at once”. “In the name of the Lord we ask, give peace a chance. Unite to save lives. Our people need care, medicine and food. Let all doctors come forth to save lives,” he added.
Be a good shepherd
In Myanmar, where hospitals are empty because of the long-running strike against the military junta, volunteers are going house-to-house to provide health care and collect bodies for burials.
In this situation, Cardinal Bo urged everyone to compassion and solidarity and be “a pastor, a good shepherd” by taking proper care of oneself and being close to others, especially families that are hit by infection and death, through innovative means while taking the necessary precautions and maintaining social distancing.