In Myanmar, Pope Francis Calls for Peace Without Saying Rohingya
Pope Francis waves to Catholic faithful as he arrives to lead a mass at Kyite Ka San Football Stadium in Yangon, Myanmar November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has constantly used his pulpit to champion the downtrodden and draw attention to the misery of the powerless and the persecuted.
He risked the fury of Turkey by describing the mass killings of Armenians in World War I as a genocide. He apologized for the silence of church leaders in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. And three months ago, he denounced “the persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” referring to the Muslim minority that has suffered a systematic campaign of murder, rape and arson by Myanmar’s military.
“I would like to express my full closeness to them,” he said at the Vatican at the time, “and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”
On Tuesday, Pope Francis had a singular opportunity to be an advocate for the Rohingya as he stood next to Myanmar’s de facto leader and in front of a hall full of military officials, prelates and diplomats in this ghostly fortress of a capital.
Pope Francis in a motorcade after his arrival in Naypyidaw. Humanitarian groups had hoped he would specifically denounce the Myanmar military's campaign of violence against the Rohingya. Credit Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But in a much anticipated speech, Francis studiously avoided using the name of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority or directly addressing their situation, after church leaders advised him that doing so would only aggravate the situation and put the country’s tiny Catholic population at risk.
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity,” the pope said as he stood next to Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose own reputation has suffered for failing to speak out against the killings. Francis said that respect for rule of law and the democratic order “enables each individual and every group none excluded to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”
“Rohingya” is a highly polarized term in Myanmar, and the pope’s own advisers had warned him that using it during his visit could antagonize the military, embolden hard-line Buddhists and even make the situation worse for the Rohingya. What the pope said in private about their plight is not known.
But critics worried that Francis’ caution in public, while perhaps prudent, risked diminishing his reputation as the world’s megaphone against injustice.
“I’m disappointed,” said Lynn Kuok, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, who had hoped the pope would acknowledge the Rohingya and their plight. Instead she called his speech “tepid” and added: “When even the leader of the Catholic Church doesn’t speak out, it really shows the desperate situation they are in.”
Preparations for the pope's arrival at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw. Credit Andrew Medichini/Associated Press
The decision whether to publicly utter the name Rohingya was perhaps the most difficult diplomatic balancing act of his pontificate, and it became a dominant narrative of the first papal visit to Myanmar.
It was a visit that even his supporters considered an unforced error as it potentially put him in a moral quandary not entirely unlike that of Pope Pius XII, whose reputation forever suffered for his calculation that speaking out against the genocide of Jews during World War II would risk the lives of Catholics.
Francis is still wildly popular, and he is expected to meet with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh later in the week. But here the diplomatic demands of the local politics outweighed any temptation the pope may have risked to directly denounce the treatment of the Muslim minority.
The pope is a good guest. He is often loath to publicly criticize his hosts when traveling, and in visits to countries from the United States to Egypt he has chosen to issue broad reminders about principles of democracy and justice, rather than dwell on specific shortcomings. But many believed the situation in Myanmar, which the United States and the United Nations have called ethnic cleansing, cried out for condemnation.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August, when the military began a crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, in response to Rohingya militants’ attacks on security posts.
Pope Francis and Myanmar’s president, Htin Kyaw, at the Presidential Palace. Credit Andrew Medichini/Associated Press
Myanmar has stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and does not consider them to be a distinct ethnic group. Instead, most of the majority-Buddhist population regards them as interlopers from Bangladesh.
Because of this, the term Rohingya is essentially taboo. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo and others in the church had urged the pope not to use it during his trip, for fear that any appearance of taking the side of the Muslim minority could provoke a violent backlash against Catholics in the country, who number about 700,000.
“I have come, above all, to pray with the nation’s small but fervent Catholic community,” Francis said on Tuesday. “To confirm them in their faith, and to encourage them in their efforts to contribute to the good of the nation.”
The Rohingya crisis has already done reputational damage to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was stripped of her Freedom of Oxford award for failing to denounce the military’s crackdown.
Speaking immediately before Francis, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged that “the situation in the Rakhine has most strongly captured the attention of the world.” She said that in the face of a breakdown of trust “between different communities in Rakhine,” she especially valued the support of friends who wished for the government’s success.
Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, right, has been criticized for failing to denounce the crackdown on the Rohingya. “It is the aim of our government to bring out the beauty of our diversity and to make it our strength,” she said Tuesday. Credit Vincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“It is the aim of our government to bring out the beauty of our diversity and to make it our strength, by protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all,” she said.
But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a landslide election in 2015, is also in an excruciatingly tight political spot. She has no authority over the military, which ruled the country outright for decades. Her defenders, including Cardinal Bo and others in the church, argue that she is powerless to stop the campaign against the Rohingya, and that for her to speak out against it would only weaken her, strengthen the military and jeopardize the country’s fragile democratic gains. She conferred privately with the pope before their public speeches.
But analysts here said the more important meeting for Francis came on Monday evening, when he met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who has led the campaign against the Rohingya and essentially sidelined Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. The crackdown is popular in Myanmar and has helped coalesce support behind the general, who is believed to have designs on the presidency.
In a Facebook post after Monday’s meeting, the general denied that religious prejudice existed in Myanmar. “His speech is always the same,” said Mariano Soe Naing, a spokesman for the Myanmar Catholic bishops conference.
For that very reason, many humanitarian groups had hoped Pope Francis would say something very different. Instead, he spoke broadly about religious differences as a source of enrichment, tolerance and nation-building.
Pope Francis and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on stage. The pope is often loath to publicly criticize his hosts when traveling. Credit Max Rossi/Reuters
“The religions can play a significant role in repairing the emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds of those who have suffered in the years of conflict,” he said. “Drawing on deeply held values, they can help to uproot the causes of conflict, build bridges of dialogue, seek justice and be a prophetic voice for all who suffer.”
Some diplomats thought it was for the best that the pope had not explicitly mentioned the Rohingya.
“The problem is that with the press, maybe some human rights organizations, the expectations are very high,” said Nikolay Listopadov, Russia’s ambassador to Myanmar, after exiting the International Convention Center, where the speeches took place. “They usually expect some miracles. But even the pope can’t just produce a miracle right now.”
The pope emphasized similar themes earlier Tuesday at the archbishop’s residence in Yangon, where he met for 40 minutes with Buddhist leaders, as well as Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives. He said that diversity was a source of strength and that uniformity eroded humanity.
But that view is anathema to many Buddhists in Myanmar. Many see the Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar for generations, as unassimilated Muslim separatists whose propagation poses a threat to Buddhist, and nationalist, identity.
“We don’t like them. We’re angry,” said Naing Win, a 19-year-old novice monk who was walking around a pagoda complex in Yangon on Monday afternoon.
Nor does the view of Rohingya as, essentially, trespassers in Myanmar appear to be limited to hard-line Buddhists. Asked if any Rohingya had been present at the morning meeting in Yangon, Father Soe Naing, the spokesman for the Myanmar Catholic Bishops conference, explained that it was unlikely, as the Muslims who called themselves Rohingya were not allowed to move around the country.
The designation Rohingya, he added, was “a sudden creation” that reflected a separatist movement in Rakhine State: “For us they are called Bengalis.”
Source: The New york times