|Burmese Catholics at Papal mass
This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my conversation with Mr. James Swe, a Burmese Catholic of Portuguese descent and member of the "Bayingyi" community. Mr. Swe is also author of the book Cannon Soldiers of Burma about the Portuguese presence in the country. The interview was used in two stories which can be read here, and here, in Portuguese.
Most people in the world will never have heard of the Bayingyi. Who are they?
They call the Catholics in Burma Bayingyis. Historians say that Bayingyis came from Frankies, the Europeans were called Frankies during the Crusades by the Arab and Middle Eastern people, and when the Christians came to Asia they were known as the Frankies, and then slowly the Burmese changed the name to Bayingyis. So in Burma right now all these descendants of the Portuguese are called Bayingyis.
And you are a descendant of these people?
Yes. They were here about three or four hundred years ago, and I am one of the descendants of the villages, I came from Chanthaywa, near the first Portuguese settlement in 1613.
All this was close to 500 years ago. What kinship do the Bayingyi feel to Portugal today?
To tell you the truth, they don't understand too much about it. Most of them, the people living in the villages, don't even know where Portugal is. But they are very proud of the fact that they are descended from the Portuguese. The reason is that in Burmese history, the expansion of Burmese influence and power is because of the Portuguese descendants who served the Burmese kings as cannon men and gunners. Because the Burmese were fighting with bows and arrows and knives against their enemies, and when the Portuguese came, with the guns and cannons, they won their wars and expanded all over Asia. That is why they are very proud of it.
In what characteristics can this Portuguese heritage still be seen?
There are very few little signs left. The main thing is the Catholic faith. All of the Catholics are Portuguese descendants. All the churches... Even the first Cardinal we have in Burma right now, Charles Bo, is also one of their descendants. He is also my cousin.
How about clothing, cooking, and vocabulary?
There are very few things left, like vindaloo, making sausages, in most of the villages they know how to make pork sausages, just like the Portuguese had done many hundred years ago. That is how things carry on through the generations. A lot of that continues with the cooking and the religion, some of the traditions.
You can see the features of some of the people, they are quite fair, have blue eyes and green eyes, but there are very few of those left because they have been living in a very hot and remote area for centuries and their skin colour changed a little bit. These are the only traces left right now.
The Bayangyi were considered elite and loyal soldiers. Is there still a military tradition? Are any represented in senior posts in the armed forces at the moment?
The last Catholic general in the Burmese military was general Abel, which was about 20 years ago, but he has retired now. He was the last one to be in a prominent military position.
Is there any contact, recognition or interest on the part of current Portuguese authorities in relation to the descendants of the Portuguese in Burma?
The first contact I had with them was with the previous Portuguese ambassador to Burma. His name was Mr. Luís de Sousa. He was very interested, because when he saw my book he read it and he invited me to his residence in Thailand, my wife and I went there, and we discussed many things. Then he went to the villages and he visited with his family and showed his children, saying these people had lived in these remote areas for the last 400 years, so they were very touched.
That was the first contact the villages had with the Portuguese Government or representatives. But now this new ambassador, Mr. Francisco, he is also very interested. I told him last time to come and visit, during the Pope's trip to Burma, but I think he is busy right now, he is looking after three countries as Portuguese ambassador to Thailand, to Burma and to Vietnam, I believe. So he has to go on rotating the countries. So he is busy, but he said if he has the chance he would come down to Burma some time.
This is the first contact the Portuguese villages had with the Portuguese government.
Have you ever even been to Portugal?
I was there about four times, because when I was writing my book I went there quite a few times to do research. There is a lady called Ana Guedes, who stayed in Burma for a long time doing her own research. So I went there to contact her as well.
What was it like for you?
For me, the first feeling I had when I arrived in Portugal was that we were being reunited to Portugal. After 400 years, even though my forefathers from 400 years ago never new if they would get back to Portugal, but after 400 years I, as their spiritual heir, arrived back in Portugal. That is how I felt it. Even though I don't look like a Portuguese person, I feel like it, like I was back home.
Would you say that for most of your people this kinship has less to do with geography, and is of a more spiritual nature?
A lot of things yes. Spiritual things like the Catholic religion are deeply embedded in our culture. All these villages are very firm Catholics, very conservative Catholics, so that is a very strong position, we carry on as Portuguese descendants. It is a very important thing.
What do your people expect from the Pope’s visit?
They are very excited. It is almost like a miracle for them. Most of the people cannot afford to go to Rome, and the Pope is going to meet them, and they are very anxious to meet the Pope. They will see him from a very far distance, but they are really excited. They are talking about between two and three hundred thousand, minimum, people showing up there. All these villages are planning to come, with busses and trains and planes right now.
As Christians, you are a minority in Burma. Currently another minority, the Rohyngia, have been in the news, with accusations of genocide levelled at the Armed Forces. What is your opinion on what is going on there?
Rohingyas is just a name that they created. Some of them have been in Burma for a long time, some of them since the Portuguese were there, but they are not Rohingya, they are Bengalis, the people from Bangladesh.
When their population grew to fast they started having problems with the Budhists. Budhists are also very conservative people, there was a clash between the Budhists and Muslims in that area.
For us, as Christians, we don't want to get too involved, complaining to any sides. That is why our Cardinal Charles Bo asked the Pope not to use the word Rohingya, because Rohingya is not recognised in Burma as a race, or ethnicity. We have so many ethnic groups in Burma, they don't want to create another one.
But we always try to help them, even the Church is helping them to resettle. We Christians always try to be neutral in these religious and cultural conflicts.
Is there a history of intolerance and conflict between the Budhist majority and the Christians, for example?
During the military government, around 50 or 60 years ago, they nationalised about 32 schools and six hospitals which were run by the Catholic Church. The Government took them over and never returned them. Also, during that time the Churches were not allowed to rebuild or even be maintained, we couldn't even paint them. Only now, with this new government, since 2011 did they allow us to remodel and repaint the churches. It was very hard before, but now it is more relaxed with regard to the churches.