The Vatican's recent decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Myanmar may help bring change to how the Southeast Asian nation treats minorities such as Rohingya Muslims, says a U.S. Jesuit priest serving there.
Fr. Julio Giulietti, who is working with Yangon Cardinal Charles Bo to create an institute to help people in the country learn leadership skills, said he thought the Vatican's move indicates Myanmar's leaders have promised to work for better treatment of minority populations.
"To receive the relationship with the Holy See they had to talk about this," said Giulietti, who has is working with the Yangon archdiocese to launch the new Myanmar Leadership Institute and spoke in a recent interview.
"I know that this would not have happened unless there is a clear decision that some more just, equitable and compassionate understanding among the Burmese/Myanmar people about the situation of this huge area and people needs to be addressed," he said.
Giulietti, who has been in Myanmar for two years, was speaking earlier in the month following Pope Francis' May 4 meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's leader. The Vatican announced after that meeting that it and Myanmar had established full relations and would soon open respective embassies.
Myanmar, 88 percent Buddhist, began a process of democratic reforms in 2015 to emerge from a half-century of military rule. Suu Kyi, who had been put on house arrest under the military leadership, was elected the country’s State Counselor, a role equivalent to prime minister, in April 2016.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has faced tough questions in recent months about her country's treatment of Rohingya Muslims. The United Nations has warned that there are atrocities being committed against the Rohingya that could be considered “crimes against humanity.”
Giulietti, who had served in Japan for eight years and Vietnam for six before moving to Myanmar, said that even Catholics in the country have a prejudiced view against other minority populations. The Jesuit said many Catholics have not been educated in the faith.
"That is not because of laziness," said Giulietti, who is also a former NCR board member. "It is because no one was allowed to leave the country for 56 years. No Burmese bishop attended Vatican II. The military took over in March 1962 and in October 1962 was the launch of Vatican II. No one was allowed to go.”
The Jesuit also said Francis' decision to name Yangon's Archbishop Bo a cardinal in 2015 has given the church in the country more prominence.
“This is a hierarchical country," he said. “When someone is named a cardinal, they recognize that this is the highest you can go. For that reason, the church has a little more secular status.”
The new Myanmar Leadership Institute came about in cooperation between Bo and the Jesuit's Myanmar mission. The hope is to create an institution that can help train a new generation of civil leaders in a society that has been under military rule for so long.
The institute is planned to have an educational association with Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington. Giulietti said he is currently looking for a person from Myanmar to serve as the institute's first director and is hoping it might launch this fall or next spring.
The Jesuit said that many in Myanmar are hoping their lives will improve in coming years. He said many people there now only have 2-3 days worth of food or money available at any given time.
“There’s a lot of expectation from Aung San Suu Kyi and her leadership now," said Giulietti. "Nothing was done for close to 60 years and it’s really hard to make changes."
“A great asset for Myanmar is to say that it now has joined the major countries in the international community to have won the respect and the admiration of the Holy See," he said. "For Myanmar to say that it now has that kind of respect on the international level is very positive.”
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]