« The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar » – M. John

4. In Defense of the Rohingya Muslims 

The Myanmar government still denies the existence of the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas are labeled as “Bengalis from Bangladesh”. Myanmar refuses to use the term “Rohingya” and calls the Rohingya the “Muslims” in Rakhine State. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the leader of Myanmar Catholics, was asked by the government not to mention the name “Rohingya” in his pronouncements. But he has defied this injunction. In his homilies and statements, Myanmar’s first-ever cardinal has endorsed the protection of the Rohingya Muslims and promotion of religious freedom in Myanmar.[16] Pope Francis also uses the term “Rohingya.” He said that Burmese treatment of its populous and persecuted Rohingya minority constitutes war against them.[17] Moreover, on 24 May 2014, Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, a Burmese lay catechist, was beatified together with Mario Vergara, an Italian PIME missionary martyred in Shadaw, Myanmar in 1950 by Burmese rebels. Cardinal Bo said that this event “means that the Holy Father is giving attention and care to the forgotten Church that was under military rule for 50 years.”[18] On 8 February 2017, the Pope encourages his weekly general audience to pray “for our Rohingya brothers and sisters who are being chased from Myanmar and are fleeing from one place to another because no one wants them… They are good people, they are not Christians, they are peaceful people, they are our brothers and sisters and for years they have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith.”[19]

Despite these prophetic voices, there are also signs of disunity and division in the Myanmar Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) has not boldly spoken out with a prophetic denunciation of the injustice done to Rohingya Muslims. The clergy and religious are reluctant to talk about the issue. According to a priest from diocese of Pyay (that diocese covers the whole of Rakhine State), Karuna Mission Social Solidarity (or Caritas Myanmar) has no project for the Rohingyas.

[16] See, for example, Charles Maung Bo,  “Easter Message on the Occasion of Easter to the People of Myanmar,” (Homily, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, 2013); Ibid., “A Personal Statement” (Statement, Archbishop’s House, Yangon, 3 May 2013); Ibid., “Peace and Fraternity–The Road Map for a New Myanmar,” (New Year Message, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, 1 January 2014); Ibid., “Easter Message–April 2014,” (Homily, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, 2014); Ibid., “Unity is Strength–Dignity is in Diversity: Parents’ Day Message,” (Message, Archbishop’s House, Yangon, 24 July 2014).

[17] Joshua J. McElwee, “Francis: Burmese treatment of Rohingya minority a form of ‘war’,” National Catholic Reporter (7 August 2016; accessed 10 October 2016). 

[18] “Myanmar Archbishop makes plea on behalf of Rohingya Muslims,” (accessed 10 October 2016). 

[19] pope_francis_prays_for_myanmars_persecuted_rohingya/1291126 (accessed 9 February 2017).

It is true that there are some abuses on the ground. Htoo Chit told me that there are self-declared Rohingyas.[20] They are Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh who identify themselves as Rohingyas in order to receive humanitarian aid and/or get a chance to migrate abroad. But these abuses should not blind the Church to the millions of Rohingyas that suffer extinction. Words like democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, politics, and federalism were taboos under the five decade-long Burmese military regime. These concepts have become buzzwords in the public arena today. But the word “Rohingya” is still a taboo in this hegemonic Buddhist society. As a forbidden word, to speak it is regarded as disgraceful and disrespectful while, on the whole, hate speech against them is tolerated. The Rohingya people exist. They are like everyone else. To reject their existence is to extinguish them as a people. And to deny them their dignity is also an affront to our humanity.

[20] My conversation with Htoo Chit in Suratthani, Thailand on 21August 2016. Htoo Chit is the Executive Director of Foundation for Education and Development (FED), formerly Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development (GHRE) based in Phang Nga province, Thailand.


Maung John is a married lay theologian from Myanmar. He is the founder and director of a Catholic humanitarian organization named Agency for Basic Community Development (ABC). He finished the Curriculum for the Ordained Ministry in St. Vincent School of Theology (SVST), Quezon City, Philippines in 2008. Due to his involvement in the social justice issues against the Burmese military junta, he was forced to leave religious life in 2009. He earned M.A. and Ph.D. in Theology, with specialization in Missiology from St. Anthony Mary Claret College (SAMCC) – Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia (ICLA), Quezon City, Philippines. He is the first Burmese layperson to get a doctorate in theology. Currently, he is working for social development in Myanmar.