The cross : Cardinal Bo, Archbishop of Rangoon (Burma), wrote a letter on July 19, calling on political disagreements to be overcome and calling for unity in the face of the Covid pandemic. How would you describe the management of the health crisis in Burma?
Father Ludovic Mathiou: The problem is precisely that it is not managed. For the past few weeks, I have been living in Kalaymyo, a town in western Burma, which has recently become one of the epicenters of covid-19 contamination. Nothing has been done by the army to stem the spread of the virus, it is dramatic. Some doctors working in hospitals have denounced the lack of means from which they suffer to receive the sick: hospitals are full and lack oxygen tanks for patients in intensive care.
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Associations reacted, wishing to set up quarantine centers, but local authorities did not want to. The civil disobedience movement launched by doctors highlighted the corruption of the military power, in place since the coup of February 1. From now on, everything goes through the army, and in particular vaccines, which are requisitioned by the authorities. The international community is powerless, because even if it sent additional doses, the medical system is now destroyed, and it would therefore be very difficult to distribute them. In the end, more than 7,000 people died from covid.
It has now been more than five months since the Burmese army carried out a coup. Is the political climate calming down?
PLM : Not really. The army tries to take control of the country by force and frightens the population. The abuses are daily, and it is common to hear gunshots in the distance. Hundreds of people have been killed by the government since the coup. When I walk down the street, I can’t help but steadily look behind me. The army has it after everyone: churches have been bombed in the east of the country, Buddhist pagodas desecrated by armed soldiers… This lack of respect has come as a shock to believers, but the Burmese have a great resilience capacity.
Faced with this situation, what help has the Catholic Church been able to provide?
PLM : Locally, the Church can initiate aid, even if it is a minority in Burma. We have set up a quarantine center in a converted seminar which, unfortunately, can only open during the day. In the evening, the curfew prevents the sick from coming to find care with us, which limits our action. We also bought oxygen tanks, and organized meal distributions, in the face of the food shortage. In some regions, partnerships with other religious communities have been established. But this help is not possible everywhere or all the time, it depends on the political situation.
Can you continue to perform services and administer the sacraments?
PLM : The Church tries to continue her pastoral work as she can. Public masses are stopped in all dioceses due to the pandemic, but we can still celebrate funerals and perform services on the Internet (when the connection is not cut). Likewise, all dioceses can communicate on Radio Veritas, a Catholic website broadcast in Asia. But we are careful: recently Protestant pastors were arrested for praying for peace, which was seen as an incitement to rebellion by the military power. The army is watching everything. For our part, we must continue to hope, even if it is difficult to imagine a bright future.