YANGON — Pope Francis begins his first full day in Myanmar traveling to the country’s capital Tuesday to meet with the civilian leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a day after hosting the military general in charge of the crackdown on the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Francis’ speech to Suu Kyi, other Myanmar authorities and the diplomatic corps in Naypyitaw is the most anticipated of his visit, given the outcry over the crackdown, which the U.S. and U.N. have described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to drive out the Rohingya from northern Rakhine state.
The operation, launched in August after Rohingya militants attacked security posts, has sent more than 620,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, where they have reported entire villages were burned and looted, and women and girls were raped.
Myanmar’s Catholic leaders have stressed that Suu Kyi has no voice to speak out against the military over the operation, and have urged continued support for her efforts to move Myanmar toward a more democratic future that includes all its religious minorities, Christians in particular. How Francis bridges the local Catholic concerns with his legacy of speaking out for oppressed minorities is the key to watch in his speech in Naypyitaw.
Francis dove into the crisis hours after arriving on Monday by meeting with the commander responsible for the crackdown, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and three members of the bureau of special operations. The Vatican didn’t provide details of the contents of the 15-minute “courtesy visit,” only to say that “They spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s office said in a statement on Facebook that he is willing to have “interfaith peace, unity and justice.” The general added that there was no religious or ethnic persecution or discrimination in Myanmar, and that the government allowed different faith groups to have freedom of worship.
Rohingya Muslims have long faced state-supported discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country and were stripped of citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food or education.
Myanmar’s Catholic Church has publicly urged Francis to avoid saying “Rohingya,” a term shunned by many here because the ethnic group is not a recognized minority in the country. And they have urged him to toe a delicate line in condemning the violence, given the potential for blowback against Myanmar’s tiny Catholic community.
Francis previously has prayed for “our Rohingya brothers and sisters,” lamented their suffering and called for them to enjoy full rights. As a result, much of the debate before his trip focused on whether he would again express solidarity with the Rohingya. Any decision to avoid the term and shy away from the conflict could be viewed as a capitulation to Myanmar’s military and a stain on his legacy of standing up for the most oppressed and marginalized of society, no matter how impolitic.
Burke didn’t say if Francis used the term in his meeting with the general, which ended with an exchange of gifts: Francis gave him a medallion of the trip, while the general gave the pope a harp in the shape of a boat, and an ornate rice bowl.
The papal trip was planned before the latest spasm of violence erupted in August, when Myanmar security forces responded to militant attacks with a scorched-earth campaign that has sent many Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
In the Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, Senu Ara, 35, welcomed Francis’ arrival for what he might be able to do for the refugees.
“He might help us get the peace that we are desperately searching for,” she said. “Even if we stay here he will make our situation better. If he decides to send us back, he will do so in a peaceful way.”
But in Myanmar, the sentiment was different. The government and most of the Buddhist majority consider the Rohingya Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country, though Rohingya have been here for generations.
“Being a religious leader – Catholic leader – means that he is well-regarded, but of course there is this worry if he says something, people might say, ‘OK, he just came to meddle,'” said Burmese analyst Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner. “So, I think a lot of diplomacy is needed, in addition to the public relations.”
Upon his arrival in Yangon, the pope was greeted by local Catholic officials and his motorcade passed by thousands of Myanmar’s Catholics, who lined the roads, wearing traditional attire and playing music.
Children greeted him as he drove in a simple blue sedan, chanting “Viva il papa!” (Long live the pope) and waving small plastic Myanmar and Holy See flags. Posters wishing Francis “a heartiest of welcome” lined the route into town.
Story: Nicole Winfield