POPE FRANCIS has been criticised by human-rights groups for avoiding any mention of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority during a visit to the conflict-stricken nation on Tuesday.
He did, however, urge Myanmar’s leaders, including the defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to “respect the rights of all who call this land their home”, in a clear reference to the ongoing persecution of the mostly Muslim Rohingya community in Rakhine state.
More than 620,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar in recent months, after violent repression by the country’s security forces (News, 17 November). Myanmar has said that the Rohingya are recent migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, and denies them the full rights of Burmese citizenship.
The Pope had been asked to speak out during his visit, but he instead chose more diplomatic language, heeding the advice of senior Roman Catholic figures in Myanmar who have said that even the name Rohingya is a politically charged and sensitive term.
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect of the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity,” he said while sharing the stage with Ms Suu Kyi.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis called the Rohingya his “brothers” during an address in St Peter’s Square: “I would like to express all my closeness to them and let us all ask the Lord to save them and to inspire men and women of good will to help them, so that they may have their full rights.” (News, 1 September).
Speaking on Tuesday in Myanmar, he said: “Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance, and wise nation-building.”
The deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said that, by not mentioning the Rohingya by name, Pope Francis had “missed an important opportunity to tell Myanmar that every group has the right to self-identify, and to refute the unconscionable pressure by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military to deny the Rohingya their identity. The Rohingya have been stripped of so many things but their name should never be one of them.”
Amnesty International’s deputy campaigns director for Southeast Asia and Pacific, Ming Yu Hah, said that it was “disappointing” that the Pope did not use the word Rohingya in his speech, but she welcomed his “calls for respect for all ethnic groups and an inclusive society”. His visit had “also helped focus international attention on Myanmar and the horrific crimes being carried out against the Rohingya people on a daily basis by Myanmar authorities”, she said.
Ms Suu Kyi’s silence on the crisis in Rakhine state has been much criticised overseas. Her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called on her to condemn openly the atrocities and human-rights abuses committed by the army against the Rohingya.
The Pope has also had private meetings during his trip with nationalist Buddhist monks and army commanders. It is the first-ever visit by a Pope to Myanmar, which is 89.9 per cent Buddhist.
There is also a small (6.3 per cent) Christian community, and the Pope met with Christian and other faith leaders also earlier on Tuesday. Some Christians, particularly in Kachin state, have also seen violence and been forced to flee from their homes owing to inter-ethnic conflict.
His spokesman told reporters that during the meeting Pope Francis had called for “unity in diversity”, and for the different faith groups to collaborate in developing Myanmar, which only exited decades of military dictatorship in 2015.
Although the Catholic population in both countries is small, the Roman Catholic Church in Myanmar and Bangladesh play a key role advocating for peace and dialogue.”
On Wednesday, the Pope presided at an open-air mass in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and largest city. The mass was attended by about 150,000 worshippers.
On Thursday, he was due to travel to Bangladesh for the next portion of his Asia trip, where he would spend time with some Rohingya refugees.