FOR the past 15 years, Kevin Meese has been visiting Myanmar and has witnessed hard times of suppression under the country’s strict military rulers.
Now, the Melbourne director of Catholic Mission is optimistic about Myanmar’s future as it presses ahead with democratic reforms, and he believes the Church has a vital role to play.
He welcomes the announcement that Pope Francis will visit the fledgling south-east Asian nation – the first Catholic pontiff to do so – in November.
“Myanmar has been on its knees for the last six decades,” he said.
“The bishops in Myanmar understand that they have something to offer in terms of nation-building.”
Mr Meese was in Brisbane last week, promoting education projects Catholic Mission is planning to start in Myanmar in 2018.
Catholic Mission is the international mission aid agency of the Catholic Church in Australia
Mr Meese (pictured) said the military systematically dismantled the country’s education system and drove out teachers to maintain power and to stop any uprisings.
“Before the junta came to power, under British rule, Burma (now Myanmar) had an education system that was one of the most highly prized in Asia,” he said.
“Schools run by Catholic missionaries were particularly well thought of.
“So from an elite position to being decimated has meant they are starting from the ground up again.”
Catholic Mission plans to spend more than $1 million to help rebuild four schools, re-establish teacher training in the capital, Yangon and near the major centre of Mandalay, and set up intensive teacher training ties with Australian educators.
In Brisbane, Mr Meese held a boardroom luncheon with Catholic educators, principals, and campus ministers to highlight the Catholic Mission plans and to appeal for assistance in bridging Myanmar’s education gap.
Mr Meese said Pope Francis’ visit to Myamar would lift the country’s profile and represented a big step forward for Church’s relations.
The Holy See and Myanmar established full diplomatic relations in May, following a meeting in Rome between Pope Francis and the country’s de facto leader, Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, during his visit, Pope Francis will likely face the difficult question of how to speak about the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
The United Nations has warned that there are atrocities being committed against the Rohingya that could be considered “crimes against humanity”.
Hard-line Buddhist groups have fanned the violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims over the past five years.
About 88 per cent of Myanmar’s 51 million people identify as Buddhist.
About three per cent are Catholic, but the Church has significant influence, and Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo is already starting to play a key role in multi-faith dialogue.
“He is bringing to the table people from different faiths and points of view to say let’s work together on a shared problem,” Mr Meese said.
He said geographically, Myanmar was “so significant between China and India and on trading routes”.
“The government is reforming but is having difficulty because of its military past and its consititution which still demands twenty-five per cent representation by the army,” he said.
“Because of these geopolitical tensions there is a general understanding that the country will be held back without education.”
Mr Meese said Myanmar’s bishops believed “an education revolution” could change their nation within a decade.