Pope Francis Visits Myanmar in the Middle of Rohingya Crisis
The Pontiff recently began a rare South Asian tour on November 27th, arriving in Myanmar that same day.
While the Papacy declared the purpose of its visit to be supporting the small Catholic population in Myanmar, many observers expected a statement from Pope Francis concerning the Rohingya Crisis, given the Pope’s own previous condemnation of the Burmese government's persecution of the minority.
After the following meetings with Senior military officials and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, many were left disappointed when the Pontiff failed to mention the Rohingya. Rather, he opted to call for peace and tolerance for all minority groups.
This was perceived as a slight to human rights watchers and the Rohingya themselves.
The Rohingya are not an official ethnic group in Myanmar; instead the military government refers to them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. As such, many took the Popes avoidance of the word as tacit approval of the governments brutal campaign to remove the Muslim minority.
Still, others have spoken to the Pope’s defense. His official spokesperson stated that “People are not expected to solve impossible problems”, claiming the trip was to build bridges, not burn them.
Catholic bishops within Myanmar requested that the Pope avoid making statements about the Rohingya, lest the country’s own small Catholic population begins facing persecution. This is an unfortunately realistic prospect in a nation actively in conflict with many of its minority ethnic groups.
Myanmar has a small population of Christians, government historically known to have driven off many missionaries. This was most notable during the 1960’s, when all missionaries were forced out until the 1990’s.
But there was a small victory for the Rohingya people at the Pope’s second location on his tour: Bangladesh.
On December 1st, the Pope met with a number of Rohingya refugees, hearing their stories, and referring to them by name in saying, “The Presence of God today is also called Rohingya”.
This was then followed by his asking for forgiveness on behalf of the world, from the Rohingya, for allowing such atrocities to occur. Although human rights advocates see this as a minor success, the Pope’s actions were met by the approval and surprise of the international community.
While the trip is unlikely to change the situation in Myanmar, it shows some solidarity with the Rohingya people. It also highlights the difficulties in standing against the crimes of Myanmar’s government while maintaining cooperation—a complicated and delicate situation likely to leave many visitors perplexed.