AMOR Conference & Site Visits (February 27-March 12, 2017).
Building strong relationships with the sisters in Southeast Asia was the main goal for attending the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious (AMOR) Conference as well as visiting project sites in Myanmar (pronounced MEE-yun-mar), Thailand and Malaysia. The 17th conference of AMOR, entitled AMOR XVII, was an historical event not only because Myanmar was chosen to be the host country for the very first time since AMOR’s inception in 1971, but because it was the first time religious men were invited to attend.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Its 2017 census reported a population of 55 million people.
The conference was held in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) which means “End of Strife.” This is the largest city in Myanmar and was the Capitol of the country until 2006 when its military dictator relocated it to Naypyidaw.
Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948, but soon fell under the rule of an oppressive military junta in 1962. The country remained closed to the world for decades until Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a political victory in 2015. However, the country is still considered to be under martial law since many officials from the previous junta are still in positions of power. In fact, the legal advisor of the NLD was shot dead by an unknown assassin at the Yangon International Airport on January 29, 2017 – about a month before the AMOR Conference.
Sr. Gina Blunck and I arrived on separate flights at the Yangon International Airport on February 26, 2017. We were picked up by Sr. Magdalene Lim, the local superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, who brought us to the Asia Plaza Hotel in Yangon. On the way, we stopped at the St. Joseph Nursery School located in the same building as the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. This school uses the Montessori method of teaching and currently has about 40 children enrolled. In 2014, the sisters received a grant in order to paint the classrooms, install new air-conditioners and buy educational material. Sr. Magdalene gave us a tour of the school, but unfortunately, there were no children present, because it was a Sunday.
On Monday, February 27, Sr. Gina and I attended the first day of the AMOR conference held at the hall of St. Mary’s Cathedral. There was a grand opening ceremony in front of the cathedral with representatives holding various international flags followed by a procession of delegates to the church hall. More than 100 delegates came from Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Philippines, Italy, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, USA, and Vietnam. This also included local women and men religious from various parts of Myanmar.
The main theme of the conference was a call to global ecological conversion. This coincided with Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si (“Praise be to you”) with the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home.” Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, gave a keynote address on the first day. He described Myanmar as possibly “the richest nation on earth—where the poorest people of Asia live.” The country is rich with raw materials such as jade, gold, teak and natural gas. However, the United Nations ranked this country 145 out of 188 countries in its 2016 Human Development Report.
During the week of the conference, Sr. Gina and I made a few project site visits. On Thursday, March 2, we went to visit the Good Shepherd Clinic in Magykwin Village located 3 hours away from Yangon. When we were about 10 minutes away from the village, we had to ride on the back of motorbikes because the road was in the process of being paved and the pathway was too narrow for a car. We met with Sr. Rebecca Kay Thi Oo, the Sister in Charge of the clinic, at her convent. Before we went to the clinic, she gave us a tour of the primary school that was located in the same compound as the convent. The school was old, dilapidated and in much need of repair. The classrooms were small and narrow. Sr. Rebecca said that she would like to ask for a grant to renovate the school and make the classrooms larger. We then went to the clinic where there were a few patients waiting. One of the assistant nurses was a young girl who was a former victim of human trafficking and had been rescued in Singapore. Sr. Rebecca stated that medical supplies was the greatest need at the clinic.
On our way back from Magykwin Village, we visited the Good Shepherd Yangon Healthcare Ministry located directly across the Yangon General Hospital. At this facility, the sisters assist those with financial difficulties for surgery and hospitalization, medicines, nutrition, and arrange attendants for emergency needs for those patients who are abandoned by the family. They provide daily meals and accommodation for the patients and attendants, especially for those who have no place to stay in Yangon while undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.
On Friday, March 3, Srs. Gina, Joyce and I went to visit a teacher training institute called Pyinya Sanye (Stream of Wisdom) Institute of Education (PSIE) that was established in 2007 by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. Since 2001, Sr. Grace Chia, IJ, and Ms. Jacinta Cardoza, who are in charge of managing this program, have been working together with other IJ sisters and lay partners to improve education in Myanmar. Their mission is to target the education of the disadvantaged and vulnerable children. The teachers who study at PSIE have to serve underprivileged children for a period of 2 years. The teachers are sent to one of 12 locations in Myanmar where the poorest children and their families live. Sr. Grace Chia said that she would like to ask funds for a demonstration farm where students can learn to be self-sustaining through agriculture and animal husbandry.
The following morning, Sr. Gina left for Rome and I went to visit an ecological farm and orphanage called St. Mary’s Home located in a small township of Yangon Region. The 50-acre farm is managed by the Sisters of the Servants of Mary, Mother of Sorrows. The sisters care for about 120 orphans who depend on them for food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care. They teach the young girls how to cook and sew. The sisters are engaged in many self-supporting projects such as gardening and the rearing of chickens, pigs, fish, cows and goats. Sr. Mary Salette, who is the provincial superior, gave me a tour of the place. She said that the farm needed a proper irrigation system and would like to submit a proposal for this project.
That evening, I flew to Thailand to meet the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate Conception.
Thailand is bordered to the north by Myanmar and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and the southern extremity of Myanmar. Geographically, Thailand is the world’s 50th-largest country. It is the 20th-most-populous country in the world, with around 66 million people. The capital and largest city is Bangkok. The Thai economy is the world’s 27th largest by nominal GDP. It became newly industrialized and a major exporter in the 1990s. Manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism are leading sectors of the economy.
The Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate Conception are an indigenous order whose members belong to the Karen (pronounced Ka’ rin) tribe. I was excited to visit their Hilltribe Children’s project located way up in the mountains of Chiang Mai. The children all belong to this indigenous tribe. The project has reached over 200 hill tribe villages in three different provinces throughout the mountainous northern region of Thailand. I visited the boarding school in Mae Pon that was established by a French missionary priest. I also visited several of the surrounding villages where the children’s families live. In the beginning, the children would walk through the jungle for a week to get to school, sleeping out in the open and feeding off the land. Now there is a boarding house where the children can stay while they learn.
After spending a few nights in the mountains, I went to visit the Wildflower Home in the city of Chiang Mai. This center was established in 2005 by an American and was taken over by the Good Shepherd Sisters in 2012. It serves primarily young pregnant women and those with children under 7 years of age, who have no fathers in their lives.
On March 7, I flew to Bangkok where I met Sr. Yanee Phanurak, a Good Shepherd Sister, who took me to her convent located in a compound with various other programs. The sisters run the Good Shepherd Training Center/Home for disadvantaged women, girls and children. The center provides primary school education and skills training in computers, sewing and hairdressing. They also have a temporary shelter for pregnant mothers. I was impressed with how well the programs were managed. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), located near the center, asked the sisters to extend their services to refugees and asylum seekers. I met a few from Ethiopia and Pakistan.
Malaysia is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, which plays a large role in politics. About half the population is ethnically Malay, with large minorities of Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indians, and indigenous peoples. The constitution declares Islam the state religion while allowing freedom of religion for non-Muslims. The government system is closely modeled on the Westminster parliamentary system and the legal system is based on common law. The head of state is the king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. He is an elected monarch chosen from the hereditary rulers of the nine Malay states every five years. The head of government is the prime minister.
On the last leg of my trip, I went to visit more Good Shepherd Sisters projects in Sabah, Malaysia located on the island of North Borneo. Sr. Joan Lopez, the Provincial Superior of Malaysia/Singapore, introduced me to Ms. Poh Choo Chin, the executive director of Good Shepherd Services. Because the number of sisters has been decreasing, the sisters began collaborating with lay women to help manage their projects. Poh Choo took me to the various project sites throughout Sabah. I went to see the Good Shepherd women’s shelter, youth center and two hostels for children. Each project was located several hours away from one another. One project that I was particularly impressed with was the women’s project located at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. This project is located in a village where there are many pineapple farms. The Good Shepherd Sisters helped the women to start an income generating project called Everything Pineapple. This project grew out of a necessity to help the families who were unable to provide for themselves after the big earthquake in 2015.
It was a real blessing to meet all of the sisters and the people they serve in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. I thought it would be good to visit projects in countries where the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters has not received many grant requests. I also thought it was important to establish contacts and build strong relationships with these sisters who could potentially help us when we have questions about projects in their respective countries.