SINGAPORE: Pope Francis’s first ever visit to Myanmar is a highly anticipated one, ever since his itinerary was announced in August. The Pope is visiting the country at the invitation of State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi.
The visit is significant primarily for three reasons – given the political aspects of his visit, the issue of religion and the Rohingya question.
On the political front, the Pope is visiting as head of state of Vatican City, a sovereign city-state entirely enclaved within Rome. Until a previous May 4 meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and Pope Francis, the Vatican was represented in Myanmar by an apostolic delegate to the local church based in Thailand.
Establishing full diplomatic ties means the Vatican will now have much more diplomatic influence in Myanmar. The Pope’s visit further strengthens and entrenches the political ties of the two states.
The second issue is that the Pope is visiting as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. It is a joyous moment for the approximately 700,000 Catholics out of a total population of about 51 million in Myanmar, where the overwhelming majority are Buddhists.
THE ROHINGYA’S PLIGHT THE MOST FOCUSED ISSUE
The third and perhaps the most focused issue is that of the Rohingya. The Pope’s visit comes at a time when Myanmar is facing international criticism over atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Rakhine state.
The issue is even more significant as it comes days after the United States government officially called the systematic violence against the Rohingya by the Myanmar security forces a case of ethnic cleansing, following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to the country earlier in November.
Earlier in September, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, had described the violence as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing since the Myanmar security forces launched clearance operations following the Aug 25 coordinated attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on multiple security posts.
The Pope has previously used the word Rohingya on a number of occasions. The last time he did so was on Aug 27, a day before papal spokesman Greg Burke confirmed the Pope’s trip to Myanmar would take place.
After his Sunday Angelus prayer, the Pope said, “Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority … I would like to express my full closeness to them - 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.”
But neither Pope Francis nor Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned the word Rohingya during their speeches in front of officials from the Myanmar government and many diplomats in the country’s capital Naypyidaw on Nov 28.
In her speech, Suu Kyi did not even refer to the more than 620,000 Rohingya who have been driven out of Rakhine to Bangladesh. Instead, she expressed appreciation to those supporting the Myanmar government as it addressed long-standing social, economic and political issues which she said “have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation.”
She also said her National League for Democracy government’s aim is to protect rights, foster tolerance and ensure security for all.
NOT USING THE R WORD
Though it was not expected from Aung San Suu Kyi, many had hoped that the Pope would highlight the Rohingya issue by calling them by the name by which they identify themselves.
Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups would have liked to see the Pope use his international profile to speak up for the Rohingya people.
Some may even be hasty to criticise the Pope for not using the R word. But one needs to understand that there are certain reasons behind this. First, ahead of the trip, Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar urged the pope not to use the R word during his trip to the country.
Aware of the country’s fragile political arrangement, Cardinal Bo was concerned that if the Pope were to utter the word, massive protests by Buddhists could endanger the country’s fragile democracy.
Moreover, Cardinal Bo understands that the sentiment of the majority of Myanmar is such that the mention of the R word could anger ultranationalist Buddhist monks to go after the Muslim minority which would then put many lives in danger.
Also, the Vatican and Myanmar only recently established full diplomatic ties and both sides ostensibly want to strengthen their bilateral relations through the Pope’s visit.
It is also very likely that both military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi requested the Pope not to use the word Rohingya. The Pope met both Hlaing and Suu Kyi before making his public speech.
To put this into perspective, the US government has been critical of human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces, but US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his recent visit to the country did not use, at least publicly, the word Rohingya.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis said during his speech that peace in Myanmar’s future depends on respecting the rights of “each ethnic group”, which can be interpreted as an indirect show of support for Rohingya Muslims.
He also lamented how the people of Myanmar have suffered and continue to suffer from civil conflict and hostilities, and insisted that everyone who calls Myanmar home deserves to have their basic rights guaranteed.
The Pope also emphasised that any future peace in Myanmar should be based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, and respect for each ethnic group and its identity.
Like many other world leaders who have visited the country, Pope Francis was seemingly constrained by a number of issues which prevented him from using the R word publicly.
But the Pope is expected to use the R word when he meets the Rohingya refugee community in neighboring Bangladesh during his visit to the country from Nov 30 to Dec 2.
In short, Pope Francis’ visit sends mixed messages. It can be deemed a successful visit on the issue of strengthening diplomatic ties between the two states. And for the minority Catholic community, the visit is a historic and joyous moment.
However, many may see yesterday as an unfortunate day for many NGOs and human rights groups, as well as for the Rohingya community and its sympathisers, given the fact that the Pope has not used his visit to publicly highlight their issues and concerns the way they want to see and hear.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the O P Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratisation of Myanmar.