In the past we haven’t good things to say about the Pope, but this week he surprised us. What was the cause of such a turn around? A visit to Myanmar. The once military run dictatorship isolated by west was previously known as Burma. The social landscape took a turn for the better when Aung San Suu Kyi. A newnew parliament convened on 1 February 2016 and, on 15 March 2016, Htin Kyaw was elected as the first non-military president since the military coup of 1962. On 6 April 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, a role akin to a Prime Minister.
The Rohingya people have consistently faced human rights abuses by the Burmese regime that has refused to acknowledge them as Burmese citizens. The Burmese regime has attempted to forcibly expel Rohingya and bring in non-Rohingyas to replace them -this policy has resulted in the expulsion of approximately half of the 800,000Rohingya from Burma, while the Rohingya people have been described as “among the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” But the origin of ‘most persecuted minority’ statement is unclear.
Rohingya are also not allowed to travel without official permission, are banned from owning land and are required to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. As of July 2012, the Myanmar Government does not include the Rohingya minority group—classified as Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982, therefore, the government states that they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.
Since the democratic transition began in 2011, there has been continuous violence as 280 people have been killed and 140,000 forced to flee from their homes in the Rakhine state. A UN envoy reported in March 2013 that unrest had re-emerged between Myanmar’s Buddhist and Muslim communities, with violence spreading to towns that are located closer to Yangon. The Burmese army and police have been accused of targeting Rohingya Muslims through mass arrests and arbitrary violence.
Many world leaders are appalled at the treatment of the Rohingya, but have stepped aside in criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi.
When Pope Francis stepped off the papal plane in Burma, he walked into a diplomatic minefield — which is exactly where he belonged.
The quagmire centered on whether he would appease a government and military that is overseeing what the United Nations has called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing,’ or do the thing that has established him as the most credible world leader today: side with the marginalized. In this instance, they are the Rohingya Muslims who have been subject to mass slaughter, rape and forced migration.
How Francis would be judged on this question centered around whether he would use one word: ‘Rohingya.’
The R-word holds such importance in Burma, also known as Myanmar, because the government does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens. To the military, extremist monks and most of the country, they are Muslim outsiders from neighboring Bangladesh. Usage of the word signals support for an almost universally hated group and invites severe repercussions from the military.
Many questioned the Bishop of Rome’s political calculus in making a trip that appeared to be a no-win scenario. As Rev. Thomas Reese, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, put it, Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country.”
Now the trip is finished, and Francis is on his way to Bangladesh. While he gave a speech calling for peace among all faiths and respect for all ethnicities, he did not use the R-word.
Nonetheless, Francis’s trip ends in success — though we may not see the fruits until later.
Good Job Pope Francis!