A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?
-Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador 16 April 1978-
The words of Archbishop Oscar Romero are as poignant today as when first spoken in 1978. Faith does not mean shying away or hiding from the challenges of the world. It means being responsive, compassionate and understanding in the front-line challenges of human life. It is thus a wonderful opportunity for inter-faith dialogue that the Advisory Forum has provided by organising for us all to join together in this forum.
I am a Kachin woman from northern Myanmar and was raised as a Christian, as are many Kachin people. Like all co-founders of the Union, the hope of the Kachin people is always for peace and justice. This sentiment for peace and justice was strong in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, again during the transition to independence, and even when armed struggle became prolonged between different forces within the country. The Kachin people always believed that, eventually, there would be a peaceful resolution by political means, which would include all nationalities and faiths within the Union.
With that hope, the Metta Development Foundation was founded following the Kachin ceasefire of the early 1990s. In the following years, we assisted communities to rebuild their lives, while waiting for a legitimate civilian government to emerge that will address the long-standing need for a meaningful political dialogue. The bitter experiences from our past highlight that these conditions of inclusion and stability are essential to bring about lasting peace.
This is why the Metta Development Foundation initially began working in areas where ceasefire agreements had been reached with the government in the Kachin and Shan States. Subsequently, Metta’s work spread into other parts of the country where many communities share the same vision and goals. These ideals are upheld by the different faith and civil society groups working in similar fields. Humanitarian needs are great. But the underlying objective is for communities to complement the peace process while waiting for the government and ethnic nationality groups to engage in political dialogue. No nationality group or region of the country should be left outside this process. In Kachin State alone, we facilitated rehabilitation efforts in over 250 war-affected communities with this hope always in mind.
Sad to say, then, that in June 2011 armed conflict resumed in the Kachin State after 17 years of ceasefire. Since this time, more than half the communities that Metta supported have been razed to the ground. Meanwhile conflict has resumed among our neighbours in the east and west of the country, including Kokang, Palaung, Rakhine, Shan, Christian and Muslim communities. For all who truly support inter-ethnic and inter-faith harmony, it is a tragedy of truly immeasurable proportions.
The scale of these setbacks highlights the fact that, for those of us who are social workers, it is not enough to concentrate on the provision of daily basic needs for the people alone. We must also strive to enable that the civilians themselves become part of the transformation process. There must be political solutions so that the peoples are equally represented and consulted on all social and political issues that affect their lives. I am thus proud to say that, even during their displacement, many of the affected communities in northeast Myanmar sought to vote in the 2015 general election. Even amidst conflict, they wanted their voices to be legitimately heard.
On that note, it is important to highlight the lack of health and economic outreach to these remote borderlands, whether ceasefire areas or not. In these regions, many communities barely live at subsistence level, fueling discontent and local grievance. Since independence in 1948, the succession of central governments has completely ignored such a basic reality that needs to be addressed.
This does not mean that community life has come to an end in the face of such hardships. The northern Triangle area in Kachin State is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, but it is also an area of poverty and neglect. Here the Christian churches have reached out with volunteer teachers, mobile health backpacker medics and other social programmes. Their commitment and presence continue until today, and only recently a teacher died while being carried out to receive needed health care. But this personal sacrifice only demonstrates the scale of the challenges. Many preventable and treatable diseases remain widespread in the northern borderlands. Leprosy also exists in the Triangle area, while 65 children died of measles in a recent epidemic in the Naga region – and this is not to mention the continuing crises in malaria, HIV and TB.
All of us who are committed to progress in our country need to take urgent notice of these sufferings. Throughout the developing world, children die because they are born in the wrong place – not of exotic, incurable diseases, but because of commonplace childhood illnesses that we have known how to treat for almost a century. In Myanmar, however, these children will continue to die until peace and an inclusive system of state governance are developed that is capable of delivering routine maternal and child health care to all peoples.