ROME, DEC. 9, 2011 (Zenit.org).- There are good signs in Myanmar: Hillary Clinton’s visit this month was a first, and Cardinal Renato Martino has just brought the country greetings from Rome as they celebrate the jubilee of the Rangoon cathedral. As well, Myanmar will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, a reward for its moves to reform.
But Myanmar is also a country where Christians have suffered severe persecution. Christians make up less than 1% of the total population and the majority of these are among the ethnic tribes along the border between Myanmar and Thailand. Government violence and persecution against these ethnic tribes have forced many to flee into Thailand.
The Thai government, the Catholic Church and other NGOs have set up refugee camps to provide education, stability and food. Bishop Joseph Pibul Visitnondachai of Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, has worked for more than 20 years with refugees.
In this interview with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop speaks about the situation of the Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Q: Your Excellency I would like to talk to you about the situation of the Catholics and refugees, but just to give us an overview, what is the work that you do?
Bishop Visitnondachai: My work is mostly with the refugees. The first time the refugees from Indo China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam flooded into Thailand some 30 years ago, the bishops’ conference of Thailand created an agency to support the refugees. Pope John Pope II also visited our camps and at that time he raised a lot of world attention, which led to a lot of support coming to the refugees, and after the repatriation of the Vietnamese refugees we are now dealing with the Burmese refugees. It has now been 20 years.
Q: You’ve been working now for 20 years in this area along the Thai border?
Bishop Visitnondachai: Yes, and also along the Thai border we have another section dealing with migrant workers who are freer to move around and are more in number than the refugees. So we have two sections — refugees and migrants.
Q: You mentioned the Cambodian situation; the refugees have more or less returned back to the country. Now the focus is Myanmar or Burma. For the sake of clarity, let us call it Burma. How many refugees do you receive in the camps on the Thai border with Burma?
Bishop Visitnondachai: The total now is 140,000. Actually some 20,000 are going to America but when you send them to a third country, newcomers arrive hoping that they too will to go to a third country. So these are not really refugees.
Q: Are they the intellectual or are they the poor? Who is entering from the Burmese side?
Bishop Visitnondachai: The problems are on the borders — the fighting …
Q: … between the government and the ethnic tribes; the Karen, the Shan … ?
Bishop Visitnondachai: Yes, the Karen and the Shans.
Q: … but are you also dealing with intellectuals who are coming across?
Bishop Visitnondachai: I think all levels, but many of them are farmers; they are the hill tribe people. The other situation is that people come because there is food and good education and everything is provided, so people want to enter the camps.
Q: Can you tell us briefly what is happening in these border regions? Why is there conflict between the Burma government and these ethnic groups?
Bishop Visitnondachai: These people are caught in the crossfire when conflict occurs between these countries. They become the pawns of the conflict.
Q: These people are seeking autonomy?
Bishop Visitnondachai: It is true and not only them but other tribes because they do not want to be under the Burmese. This is the reason for the fighting.
Q: The difficulty is that many of these are of course Christians because the missionaries were able to evangelize these ethnic groups. So there is also this religious element that plays into this question?
Bishop Visitnondachai: That is true and correct; many are either Catholics or Protestants. Actually the priests and pastors are working hard to provide the refugees with education and some outside support. Because of that the refugees learn, understand and accept their fate in a way that they also understand their faith.
Q: You mentioned Pope John Paul II. I suppose it was he who came and drew attention to the camps and he said something that I would like to read here: “Myanmar is a land where the Church in her early years knew martyrdom and still today lives close to the cross of our Savior” Is this also how you would describe the Christians living in Burma?
Bishop Visitnondachai: First, to be a Catholic in Burma, it is difficult to be promoted in government. Second, if you want to build a church it is difficult to build a church. If you want to celebrate a liturgical event you have to ask permission. And to bring books or pamphlets you require permission. If a priest wants to travel from one village to the next, the priest is restricted or controlled, so the movements of Catholics are limited or restricted.
Q: The refugees who come to your camp, what do they expect? How do you welcome them?
Bishop Visitnondachai: There are many parties involved; the Thai government, UN Asia and then a lot of NGOs who are working there and each one has their own particular responsibility.
Q: What do you provide in the camps?
Bishop Visitnondachai: The Thai Catholic organization targets specifically the most vulnerable people: the senior citizens, orphans, and the handicapped. We have more or less 20,000 who we are currently taking care of. We also promote sustainable agriculture in the camps because the rations are dry and they don’t have fresh vegetables and sanitation. So these are the three or four areas for which we are responsible.
Q: Many of these people were chased out of their homeland because of the fighting. Can they forgive?
Bishop Visitnondachai: I think time will calm the hatred and anger. There is now a new generation who do not have knowledge of the past and the radicals have lost their strength.
Q: After 20 years of work at these camps, there seems to be no solution in sight. Do you not lose hope?
Bishop Visitnondachai: Suffering brings tolerance, tolerance brings patience and when you have patience you have hope and Jesus said: “If you want to be my disciple you have to suffer, you have to bear the cross.” The cross is not the end but the beginning of the Resurrection. So it is a good time for the refugees. Sure they are homesick. They want to go back home but at the same time there are many positive points being offered to them.
Q: Is there a story or one person, one situation that has touched you personally out of all of your years of experience doing this work with the refugees?
Bishop Visitnondachai: When I visit them and say Mass with them, their voices singing is different from our voices because it is the voice of the people in misery. They are singing from their heart and it touches every one. When we visit them many come because we bring hope no matter how small that hope is.
Q: There about 2 million migrants and refugees working and living in Thailand. Is there not a sense among the Thai people of donor fatigue?
Bishop Visitnondachai: We cannot say the whole Thai people are altruistic. Some hate these people. But first of all they are not sick people. They are intelligent and hardworking compared to Thai citizens.
Q: They work harder?
Bishop Visitnondachai: Yes, this is what I feel. So the Thai person wants to employ the Burmese migrants.
Q: In your opinion, are international sanctions positive as a tool, or do they in fact only hurt the poor in the end?
Bishop Visitnondachai: I think there will always be misu
nderstanding among different cultures. Europe and the Europeans always think of themselves as superior and as a superpower and others as inferior. So the European has this idea of colonizing, sanctions — and tries to crush the people. Asians are different. We too have the intelligence but we have the heart, which means sympathy, understanding and respect for each other. This is rather Asian. Europe thinks they can crush the Burmese people but China, India and the other Asian countries are coming in. We have the heart and the love. Though we are suffering we suffer together. Europe wants to use the strategy and quick action; you want to finish this problem. Actually you can never finish; Europe lost in Indo-China, Europe lost in Iraq and in many countries because you think you have power but the poor people have the heart and I think the heart is more powerful.
Q: What is your hope for your work? What is your hope for the future of Burma and the relationship between Thailand and Burma?
Bishop Visitnondachai: I think when people suffer some people do understand, especially Catholics. Misery has brought faithful people together and allowed them to help each other. So I think where there is misery, there is hope. Where there is suffering a lot of love comes in. Jesus Christ is hiding there and he is pulling the people together. There is so much suffering in Asia; in suffering there is hope and we feel that we are closer to each other and closer to God and to Jesus.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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