The name Myanmar is an illustration of the long-standing tension between the Southeast Asian country’s military government and its people, according to Jesuit Father Brian Frain, who spent two-and-a-half years in Burma teaching in a seminary.
Although the ruling military junta changed the English name of Burma to Myanmar in 1989, the democratic opposition and many of the general population continue to call their county Burma and reject the right of a nonelected government to change the name, he said. In support of those pro-democracy efforts, U.S. and British governments refuse to continue calling the country Myanmar, said Father Frain, who is now the superior of the Jesuit community at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton as well as a part-time teacher and faculty chaplain there.
The controversy over the name is just one illustration of the deteriorating relationships between a government and its people. Global media outlets in September broadcast another: thousands of Burmese monks and citizens participating in pro-democracy demonstrations and the subsequent crackdown of the government on these demonstrations. According to the U.S. State Department, the Burmese authorities shot at demonstrators, killed some of them, used tear gas on them, restricted their movements and arrested about 4,000 people.
In the midst of this tension, the Diocese of Rochester, like many other dioceses around the country, is being flooded with refugees from Burma. Most are members of such minority ethnic groups Karen and Chin that have been persecuted by the Burmese government for years, according to Jim Morris, associate director for refugee services at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, which sponsors all refugees coming to the Rochester area.
“(Military leaders) are paranoid, they are oppressive and they are waging an internal war on their ethnic minorities,” Morris said.
While ethnic Burmans make up 68 percent of the population, Shan, Karens, Rohingya, Arakanese, Kachins, Chins and Mons make up 30 percent of the population, according to the State Department. Many of the minorities have been living in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia, but this summer, the U.S. began processing large numbers of refugees to allow them to relocate to the United States. About 200 refugees from Burma have moved to the Rochester area, including 70 people in the last three months, Morris said.
“From August of ’06 to June, we’d get a case or two a month; not too many,” Morris said. “From July to September, we’ve gotten many, many more.”
So far this year, the refugee-resettlement program has resettled 410 refugees from various countries and is on track to resettle more than 450, about 100 higher than last year, he said. CFC pairs refugees with churches and other organizations that assist them with transportation and help them find living arrangements and work.
Though refugees tend to arrive in the diocese in waves each year, the sudden influx of Burmese has strained service providers such as health clinics and resettlement ministries such as Saint’s Place, a ministry of St. Louis Church in Pittsford that provides furniture, clothes and education to refugees, Morris said.
“When we get so many at one time, they don’t do as well as they should,” he noted.
The next challenge the Burmese refugees will face is the cold winter, but Morris said he believes they will quickly adapt to the climate as other refugees have.
“Refugees are by their nature a very flexible group,” Morris said. “They are adaptable, and they are survivors.”
Morris said CFC is always looking for volunteers, both individuals and at the parish level, to help cosponsor families, providing for all of a family’s needs, hosting a clothing or furniture drive to benefit resettlement ministries, creating welcome baskets filled with personal-care items for newly arrived refugees or by donating money to refugee-resettlement programs.
“I think this community is such a welcoming community for refugees,” Morris said. “They’ve done a marvelous job of helping people resettle.”
The community also has been supportive of the Burmese cause, Father Frain said, noting that on Oct. 5 McQuaid students participated in a peaceful pro-Burma protest as part of National Campus Day of Action for Burma. On this day, students wore red to show their solidarity with the Burmese monks who wear paprika-colored robes. Student also created a display about Burma and its history, and they also had the chance to sign a petition to the Chinese government urging it to accelerate democratic reforms in Burma or face an Olympic boycott in 2008. China has urged Burma to be peaceful, but has quashed attempts in the United Nations Security Council to take action against the Burmese regime, Father Frain said.
Students say the efforts have helped them stay informed.
“He’s told us how much people really need our help, and we need to be aware of what’s going on,” said junior Ryan Clancy, a student in Father Frain’s class.
Father Frain said the roots of the most recent demonstrations were that the government raised gasoline and petroleum prices by 500 percent. He said a similar hike in the U.S. would increase prices from $3 to $15.
“Monks seem to be the only group of people that can protest without being shot,” he said, noting that some reports have said monks were dragged from their monasteries at nighttime following the September protests.
According to the State Department, the government in Burma, a former British colony, has for 45 years curtailed basic freedom of speech, assembly and worship.
“Its reign of terror has plunged a once progressive nation into poverty, repression and chaos,” the State Department said on its Web site. “Thousands of Burmese have fled to neighboring countries. There are over 1,000 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was elected to power in 1990 by an overwhelming majority in the last free elections held in Burma.”
About 1 percent to 2 percent of Burma’s population is Roman Catholic, and about 90 percent is Buddhist, said Father Frain, who taught Scripture in the major seminary in Burma, helped train diocesan clergy and lived in community with Jesuit candidates. He noted that Catholics cannot hold an office in the military, which is the largest in Southeast Asia and which often is the only way people are able to escape poverty.
Father Frain said to fix the country’s social problems, he believes leaders in the country should step down and should allow a process of truth and reconciliation to take place.
In the meantime, he continues to wait anxiously for word of his friends in Burma. The Jesuit school was closed due to the violence, the telephone line seems to be cut and all e-mails he sends keep getting bounced back, he said.
“I don’t know how my Jesuit brothers are doing,” Father Frain said. “I don’t know if they are safe or not. What we need to do is pray for peace and continue our work.”