Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two nations in the heart of Asia

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Michael Kelly, SJ

 Michael Kelly, SJ
 Rock Ronaldo Rozario
 Michael Sainsbury / Church Life / Published Date:15 November 2017/Last Updated Date:22 February 2021


Free Article

Pope Francis will be in Myanmar and Bangladesh for his 21st apostolic journey November 27 to December 2, 2017. These two nations, situated in the heart of Asia, have tragic, bloodstained histories since slipping the bonds of British colonialism. They sit at the junction of the major geographical blocs of South, Southeast and North Asia and have their maritime littorals about where the great Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. Bangladesh and Myanmar are in the top five of the poorest countries in Asia. In this sad classification, Myanmar ranks third poorest and Bangladesh ranks fifth poorest.

Their Catholic populations are relatively tiny but resilient: Myanmar has an estimated 750,000 Catholics in an official population of about 52 million, and there are only an estimated 350,000 Catholics in a Bangladeshi population of more than 160 million. Recently, the significance of both countries for the Catholic Church has been greatly enhanced by archbishops of two of the nations’ major cities being made cardinals by Pope Francis: Charles Maung Bo (Yangon) and Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka). Also, these countries are home to significant populations of the world’s other great religions: Bangladesh is majority Muslim, Myanmar majority Buddhist, and both share borders with the world’s Hindu powerhouse, India, and both are home to Hindu minorities.

Pope Francis is about to visit countries that are new democracies, among the most challenged in terms of the complex web of political instability, religious and ethnic conflict and persecution, population size and growth and environmental devastation. This trip to Asia follows his journey to Korea in 2014 and his visit to the Philippines in 2015, the beating heart of the Catholic Church in Asia, and then to today’s largely conflict-free and democratic Sri Lanka. This time he is throwing himself right into the heart of Asia.

La Civilta Cattolica

Tens of millions on the economic margins

Only a tiny proportion of the approximately 212 million or more people who live in Bangladesh and Myanmar do more than economically subsist. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries with its estimated 160 million people squeezed into just 147,570 square kilometers.

According to the World Food Program, about 40 million urban and rural poor people in Bangladesh are highly food-insecure as they do not have enough access to sufficient and nutritious food.[1] The U.N. group also noted that undernutrition rates continue to be among the highest in the region.

Both nations remain agrarian economies, particularly in terms of labor force participation. In Bangladesh, some 60 percent of the total labor force directly or indirectly is involved in agriculture. In Myanmar[2] the figure is 70 percent, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Rapid urbanization and industrialization have swept from the north to the south and southeast in Bangladesh over recent years and have shrunk the agricultural lands of the country. However, Bangladesh has almost tripled food production and is almost self-sufficient in food. Myanmar, before World War II the rice bowl of Asia, is aiming to regain a position as a rice exporter. Bangladesh has made decent strides in poverty reduction. However, nearly 48 million people still live below the poverty line and about 27 percent are classified as “extremely poor.”

Another economic lifeline of these countries is remittance from overseas migrant workers. Bangladesh has about 8 million expatriate workers (mostly in Middle East countries), and Myanmar at least 4 million (mostly in Thailand) making a vital contribution to the economic life of the country. Yet these people remain among the world’s most vulnerable to human slavery and trafficking, according to the United States government.[3]

The $25 billion apparel industry in Bangladesh has become the second largest in the world, after that of China, and it is where major Western brands (including H&M, ZARA, Gap and Walmart) source their clothes. The apparel sector is the largest industrial employer with 4 million workers, mostly semi-skilled poor rural women. Low margin, intense labor jobs like these have been coming to Myanmar since the military began a process of reform and opening up to foreign companies in 2010.

Appalling safety and working conditions have plagued the industry in both nations for years, resulting in the deaths of about 2,000 workers in fatal accidents since the 1990s. In the worst instance, the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka collapsed in 2013, leaving over 1,130 workers dead and thousands injured.

Bangladesh is the 10th largest tea producer in the world, and the workers in this sector are a vulnerable and marginalized community as their life is one of perpetual servitude. A registered worker gets little over $1 daily and a few kilograms of food as a monthly ration, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) report in 2016. A worker’s family is provided with a mud-walled house by the company.

In Myanmar, hill farming is even more invidious, if generally better paid. The mountains in the country’s northern states (Kachin, Shan, Karen and Kayah) are in or close to the notorious drug-producing Golden Triangle Zone that transverses Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Workers in so-called opium poppy villages exist in the blackest economy in the world and rely on brutal drug lords for their survival.

 Environmental challenges

The economic futures of Bangladesh and Myanmar are clouded by outsized environmental challenges that threaten the well-being of tens of millions of people, in large part due to the abundance of water in both nations. Bangladesh is located on the floodplains of the world’s largest river delta system that empties into the Bay of Bengal, making the country vulnerable to frequent natural disasters from tidal shifts, cyclones and flooding, killing hundreds of people each year. Next door, the bulk of the population of Myanmar also lives on the Irrawaddy River Delta. The Bay of Bengal has seen 25 of the 26 worst cyclones in the world.[4] In 1991 Cyclone Marian killed 139,000 people in Bangladesh, and in 2008 Cyclone Nargis killed at least 138,000 people and affected 2.4 million in Myanmar.

Agriculture and fishing, forestry, mining and energy are all critical sectors for the development and economic growth of Myanmar, and the largely unregulated exploitation of these sectors has led to a rapid depletion of the natural resources and a worsening of the environmental problems in the country. It is worth mentioning too that much of the blame here lies with the ruling military who ran all the nation’s industries and who still control most of the major resources. Uncontrolled mining of jade in Kachin State is rampant. Indeed, the Kachin-Shan conflict is underscored by a battle for the control of jade and ruby mining as well as forested mountain areas.

Due to logging, the teak forests of Myanmar have been devastated, causing subsequent damage to the broader ecosystem with erosion, and fish stocks have declined significantly due to overfishing. The unmanaged urbanization of the country has brought its own problems; the challenges faced by the waste management services are highly visible on the streets.

China’s rapid industrialization and thirst for resources is causing increasing environmental headaches for Myanmar both in food and water management. As with other nations in Southeast Asia like Thailand and Laos, Chinese firms are buying up and renting large tracts of land. The Middle Kingdom is also building dams across the rivers of the region for hydroelectricity, and two of the major waterways of Southeast Asia alongside the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and Salween, both run through Myanmar. In 2011, the Myanmar government halted construction of the Myitsone Dam, but there is a series of large concrete blocks across the river where China is also planning at least half a dozen dams.[5]

The national and religious context of Bangladesh and Myanmar

Bangladesh has been considered a democracy since 1996. But in 2014 the second largest party, the Bangladesh National Party, did not become a parliamentary opposition because it boycotted the elections after the rival Awami League refused to hold polls under a neutral, caretaker government.

About 90 percent of the estimated 160 million people in Bangladesh are Sunni Muslims, with a majority following a form of Islam influenced by Sufism. Hindus make up the largest minority group at 8 percent, and the rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism, Christianity and ancient indigenous religions. Some 500,000 Buddhists are mostly concentrated in southeastern Bangladesh, close to its border with Myanmar, and they follow the Theravada school of Buddhism that continues to dominate the religious landscape in Myanmar.

Even though the Catholic Church and indeed the broader Christian churches have been very small minorities in both countries, they have contributed significantly to the development of Muslim Bangladesh and Buddhist Myanmar. But both countries have seen waves of religious persecution, generally directed against Hindus and Buddhists by Bangladeshi Muslims, and against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya people who are related to Bangladeshi Bengalis.

In Bangladesh, Christians account for less than half a percent of the population, or an estimated 600,000. The majority of Christians are Catholics spread over the eight dioceses of the country. Half of the Christians are Bengalis, the majority ethnic group, while the other half hail from various ethnic indigenous communities. The proportion of Christians in Myanmar is higher due to the relative success of missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, with ethnic minorities in the often large regions and states that surround the center of the country.

Drafted in 1972, the original constitution of Bangladesh established secularism, nationalism, socialism and democracy as four main principles of the state. However, two military regimes during the period from 1975 to 1990 replaced secularism with “absolute trust in almighty Allah” and also declared Islam as the state religion. In 2011, the Awami League government restored “secularism” in the constitution, but refrained from abolishing “the state religion of Islam,” fearing a political backlash.

What was then Burma gained independence in 1947, and after 15 years of political turmoil was cut off from the rest of the world after the military coup d’etat in 1962 from which it only emerged with elections in 2010. A new chapter began in November 2015 when the National League for Democracy swept to power in a landslide that saw Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi assume the role of State Counselor or de facto leader. But the military remains the senior partner in a power-sharing arrangement, still controlling the military, police, border and interior ministries. The current constitution of the Union of Myanmar, written by the military in 2008, asserts freedom of religion, but some accounts offer a contradictory interpretation.

The first evidence of a Christian presence in Myanmar is found in the 13th-century frescos with crosses and Latin and Greek scripts, found in some places in Bagan area covering the former Bagan Kingdom located in the Mandalay Region. Various historians believe these early Christians to be part of the Nestorian diaspora. But it was after the Portuguese established a sea route to Asia in 1498 and settled in Goa, southwestern India, that missionaries set out from Europe.

The landing of Christian European (Portuguese) merchants at Chittagong Port marked the advent of Christianity in 1517. Some records say that in 1550 a French Franciscan priest, Bonferre, went on a Portuguese ship from Goa to what was then the Bagan Kingdom on Myanmar and onto the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). In 1548, St. Francis Xavier wrote letters about the need to send missioners to Pegu (modern day Bago) but nothing is heard later about these initiatives.[6]

Portuguese mercenary Filipe de Brito e Nicote established Portuguese-backed rule in Thanlyin, near today’s Yangon, in 1603. This helped Catholic missioners to come to the area, but the initiative only lasted 10 years when a local king defeated Nicote to end the mission.[7]

In 1722, the Holy See re-established a mission, assigning Barnabite priests who secured their freedom to preach after many difficulties. Following them, priests from the Congregation of the Oblates of Pinerolo came, but they abandoned the mission in 1752 after the British annexed Pegu following a bloody war. For some time, the mission was under the care of Vicar Apostolic of Siam, but in 1806, Propaganda Fide divided Myanmar into three regions known as vicariates: Northern Burma, Southern Burma, and Eastern Burma. The northern and southern vicariates were entrusted to the care of priests of the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) while the eastern vicariate was put under the Milanese Pontifical Institute of the Foreign Missions (PIME).[8]

Myanmar now has an estimated 750,000 Catholics, a number that has more than doubled since Burmese independence in 1947. Catholics, who are about 1.5 percent of the total population, are in three archdioceses, 13 suffragan dioceses, and are served by about 1,500 religious brothers and sisters and about 630 diocesan and religious clergy. The work of evangelization relies on the efforts of some 2,000 catechists in parishes throughout the country.

The process of nation building in Bangladesh

In both countries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries built up an outstanding education system and institutions to help the poor and needy in the villages and towns. Since then, the Christian community, especially the Catholic Church, has played a vital role in the nation-building process.

The Catholic Church in Bangladesh runs one university, 10 colleges and more than 500 primary and high schools across Bangladesh, offering education to about 100,000 students annually, most of them Muslims. Several Church-run colleges and schools are ranked among the finest institutes of the country thanks to their academic and disciplinary excellence. The Catholic Church operates 10 hospitals across the country and more than 100 medical clinics based in Catholic parishes in rural and urban areas, catering to the medical needs of people across faith traditions and ethnicities. There are also a half dozen renowned hospitals run by Protestant groups.

Caritas Bangladesh, the social service agency of the Catholic Church, is one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the country. It covers 208 administrative sub-districts (out of 491) through eight regional offices. Caritas works in integrated community development, disaster management and human resource development. Caritas also runs over 1,000 free primary schools to offer basic education to the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized communities of the country.

English Baptist missionary William Carey arrived in Bengal in 1793 and was instrumental in developing Protestant missionary activities and social services. Carey translated and printed the Bible in Bengali, many other books and a dictionary of the Bengali language. He also helped develop Bengali typefaces for printing, and he pioneered the first local printing press with which he published newspapers and periodicals.

Christian missionaries contributed immensely to Bengali language and literature as they promoted a more colloquial and simplified form of the language, not using its highly-sophisticated form. Kripar Shastrer Orthobhed, a catechism written by Father Manuel da Assumpção, a Portuguese Catholic missionary, and printed in 1743 in Portugal, is the first colloquial Bengali book in print using Latin script. Missionaries are also credited with codifying Bengali grammar and writing a Bengali-Portuguese and Portuguese-Bengali dictionary.

The record of the Catholic Church in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the coup in 1962 that installed a military junta changed the scene for all the Christian churches for a half century. The junta banned clergy and religious from teaching in their schools, which were nationalized, and deported all foreign missionaries by 1965.

The extraordinary achievement of the Catholic Church in Myanmar is its survival during a half century of enforced isolation following the coup d’état in 1962 led by General Ne Win who subsequently headed the ruling junta and whose rule ushered in an uninterrupted period of oppressive rule and isolationist national socialism. In 1988, he was replaced by General Saw Maung who was replaced by General Than Shwe in 1992. The junta ruled not just by decree but by whim until the process of opening up began in 2008 and the country’s first flawed elections were held in 2010 after which Than Shwe relinquished office. He, however, remains active behind the scenes.

Despite being deprived of its health and education services, nationalized by the government in the 1960s and, like the rest of the country, enduring the effects of the economic corruption and mismanagement of the military that has impoverished the country, the Church in Myanmar is full of energy for renewed religious life, aiming to serve society in typically Catholic ways now that government restraints are being slowly lifted. The appointment of Charles Bo by Pope Francis as the first cardinal in Myanmar has proved to be an efficacious choice.

The rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh

Despite many similarities, Bangladesh and Myanmar in racial terms could not be more different. In Bangladesh, 99 percent of its population are ethnic Bengalis, whereas Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth with 135 different officially recognized religious and ethnic groups.

The monoethnicity in Bangladesh is matched by the overwhelming number of Muslims in the country and has seen minority religions targeted at various times since 1947 when it became East Pakistan. In recent years, the scourge of radicalism, which preys on poverty-ridden communities, has become all too evident.

Between 1947 and 1971, the establishment of military regimes in the western capital of Islamabad, dominated by Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis, treated Bengali East Pakistanis as “neo-colonial subjects,” disenfranchising the Bengali people.

During Pakistan rule, religious and ethnic minorities were also targeted by the state. Hindus, the largest minority, faced persecution due to the animosity of Pakistan toward Hindu-majority India. A discriminatory land law called the “Enemy Property Act” passed in 1965 allowed the government to confiscate property of people it deemed “enemies of the state.” The prime targets were Hindus.

Bengalis in East Pakistan shared a common faith, Islam, with West Pakistanis. However, the rulers in Islamabad considered them to be “bad Muslims” who held liberal views on religion and mixed easily with other faiths in striking contrast to orthodox Islamic West Pakistan. This oppression by successive Pakistani regimes sparked resentment in the Bengali people. The anger developed into the demand for greater autonomy and, consequently, secession.

The crisis was full-blown when the Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) won an absolute majority in Pakistan’s general election in 1970. But the military regime refused to hand over power. Strong nationalist protests erupted, and the Pakistani government failed to offer a political solution and instead launched a military crackdown on March 25, 1971.

During the war, the military and their local Islamist collaborators killed up to 3 million civilians, raped about 200,000 to 300,000 women, and about 10 million fled to India as refugees, according to the Bangladesh Genocide Archive. For nine months, Bengali freedom fighters, supported by India, fought against the Pakistani military until victory was won on December 16, 1971.

Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy in the 1990s, following 15 years of military rule. The Awami League, founded in 1949, the oldest and largest political party in the country, is led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 70. For decades, this Muslim nation has been in the unusual situation of having two female political leaders face off in an increasingly bitter rivalry. The chairperson of the Bangladesh National Party, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of military ruler Ziaur Rahman who founded the party in 1978 after the military takeover.

Unlike Myanmar where one coup was enough, Bangladesh has seen 19 military coups since 1975, if only two have been successful in toppling the existing regime. Both parties have alternated in power since the restoration of democracy in the 1990s. Hasina and Zia, who have deep personal animosity toward each other, are both the sole decision-makers for their parties and enjoy massive popular support.

Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the National Party, intended to give Bangladesh an Islamic, nationalist identity with the formation of the Bangladesh National Party, and helped revive Islamic politics and political parties, including the radical Jamaat-e-Islami movement that opposed the independence of Bangladesh. Its leadership stands accused of committing war crimes against civilians as collaborators with the Pakistan military during the 1971 war. Since 2013, a domestic war crimes court has convicted Islamist leaders from Jamaat and Bangladesh National Party, sentencing some to death and others to life sentences for war crimes, sparking deadly political violence.

Following the assassination of Ziaur in 1981, military chief H.M. Ershad took over in a “bloodless coup” and ruled the country until a public uprising in 1990 forced him to step down, which paved the way for democracy. Ershad also followed Ziaur’s policy of drawing near to Islamic integralists, and during his rule Islam was constitutionally declared as the “state religion.”

As the national election looms at the end of 2018, political rivalry is likely to rear its ugly head again. Bangladesh National Party leaders say they will not participate in an election under the Awami League. In the absence of a peaceful political culture, religious extremists have asserted their calls for a sharia-based Islamic state.

Bangladesh now has its own homegrown militant groups. But there are also transnational jihadi groups that ideologically influence them. Saudi Arabia has sent billions of dollars to Bangladesh since the 1970s, funding thousands of mosques and madrasas. 

The civil war and the Rohingya tragedy in Myanmar

Burma was suddenly cut free from the British Empire following World War II. This was followed by a military regime and a succession of internal conflicts. Eastern Myanmar, now in ceasefire for almost a decade, has seen about 120,000 refugees living in camps across the border in Thailand, some for decades from majority Christian Karen and Kayah states. The civil war in Kachin is occurring in a majority Christian state whose population is Baptist, Assemblies of God and Catholic, in order of popularity. Their kinsmen in neighboring Shan state revived a war in 2011 after 17 years of an uneasy ceasefire. About 140,000 people from the region now live in dozens of camps for people displaced within their own country. Thousands of people have been killed in the past 70 years, and the multigenerational tragedies, many among majority Christian ethic groups like the Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni, have received only sporadic attention from the global media.

The Church, however, has been vigilant in Thailand on the Myanmar border, and the Jesuit Refugee Service is active in two camps that house approximately 12,000 people. More recently, as the country has opened up, the Myanmar branch of Caritas, known as Karuna, has been heavily involved in caring for internally displaced people in the camps in Kachin and northern Shan states.

Despite the horrors that the military regime of Myanmar has inflicted upon the country for decades, even they have managed to surpass their worst excess in the past five years, the last two under the nominal civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The final push in a five-year concerted campaign that began in 2012 is the military-led sectarian determination to drive out (and into Bangladesh) about 1.1 million ethnic Muslims. They self-identify as Rohingya but are described by the government of Myanmar as Bengalis or Rakhine Muslims who live in northern Rakhine state adjacent to Bangladesh. The group has a complex history in the region that dates to the Arakan Kingdom that covered western Myanmar and southeast Bangladesh and whose numbers inside Myanmar grew during the British colonial period.

The Rohingya ethnicity is not officially recognized by the Myanmar government as one of its 135 official ethnic groups. About 140,000 have already been trapped in camps in their own state since the beginning of the latest round of military-backed violence in 1982. Most remain stateless and without identity cards. They were cut adrift by a repressive Citizenship law imposed by the junta in 1982, which the civilian government seems unable or perhaps even unwilling to change for fear of the political damage it would do to them.

Since August 25, when the military launched its latest campaign in response to a localized terrorist attack, the world has watched in horror as at least 500,000 Rohingya joined the 300,000 already in Bangladesh refugee camps in what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

The Myanmar military controls the police force and the border force. It likewise holds 25 percent of the seats in all the federal and state parliaments of Myanmar. Few have bothered to dig into the deeply complex political minefield that is modern Myanmar, where Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, despite winning the country’s poll in 2015 in a landslide with almost 80 percent of the vote, are very much the junior, powerless partners in an invidious power-sharing arrangement.

Many ethnic groups in Myanmar have had to fight battles to preserve themselves in the face of a widely impacting political and cultural consensus that ignores their rights and needs. But that consensus is shared by those who are the clear majority of Myanmar’s citizens and Suu Kyi’s supporters. For her to speak up for the Rohingya in any meaningful way and oppose the military operation would be to shun her own support base.

Pope Francis has been outspoken on behalf of the Rohingya several times in recent years. While world opinion is focused on the humanitarian tragedy along the border with Bangladesh and allegations of horrific human rights abuses mainly against the minority Rohingya, the view inside the country appears quite different. In Myanmar the overwhelming focus among not only the government but also the general public has been on the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and fears of Islamic extremism. Since the ARSA attacks on August 25, Myanmar social media has been brimming with reports of alleged ARSA atrocities against Buddhist and Hindu minorities, tens of thousands of whom have fled south, away from the Muslim majority areas of the country.

The fear is perhaps rightly rising that, as in Bangladesh, radical Islam may gain a foothold. Cardinal Charles Bo affirms that the Muslim Rohingya appear to be the scapegoat and cautions that the Church must tread delicately in what observers say is an increasingly pro-Buddhist nationalist environment. The Catholic bishops in Myanmar have asked the pope to see the full picture and are aware that a simple criticism of the government would be counterproductive and place the Church in useless opposition to the military, the government and the Buddhist community.

True to his mission as pope, Francis is once again trekking his way to the heart of Asia. Bangladesh and Myanmar are relatively young. Religion increasingly informs politics in both countries with fundamentalism and intolerance, a clear and present danger. Within this context, the Church in each place is also a “work in progress” as relatively very small Catholic communities face the challenges of surviving and thriving in a climate where their very identity can become a target. Yet, as we have described, their outsized influence in both places through their significance in national affairs and in health, welfare and education services to people with no Catholic affiliation is something of an example of how Pope Francis wants the Church to serve all people.


[1].U.N. World Food Program (www1.wfp.org/countries/bangladesh)

[2].U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (www.fao.org/myanmar/fao-in-myanmar/myanmar/en/)

[3].U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking of Persons Report 2017” (www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2017/)

[4].U.S. Agency for International Development, “The Bangladesh Cyclone of 1991” (http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pnadg744.pdf)

[5].cf. Thant Myint-U, Where China meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber & Faber, 2011

[6].H. J. Coleridge, The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, OUP, 1971.

[7].R. Findlay – K.H. O’Rourke, The Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium (2007), Princeton University Press, 196.

[8].R.A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2004, 318.