By Ramzy Baroud
Pope Francis lost a historic opportunity to truly set his legacy apart from his predecessors. Alas, for him too, political expediency trumped all else. In his visit to Myanmar on Nov. 27, he refrained from using the word “Rohingya.”
But what’s in a name? In our frenzied attempts at understanding and articulating the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, we often, perhaps inadvertently, ignore the heart of the matter. The struggle of the Rohingya is, essentially, a fight for identity.
Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and its representatives, including the powerful military and the country’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, understand this well. They use a strictly-guarded discourse in which the Rohingya are never recognized as a unique group with pressing political aspirations. Thus, they refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali”, claiming they are immigrants from Bangladesh who entered the country illegally.
Nothing could be further from the truth. But historical accuracy, at least for the Buddhist majority, is beside the point. By stripping the Rohingya of any name affiliation that makes them a unique collective, it becomes possible, then, to deny them their rights, to dehumanize them and, eventually, ethnically cleanse them, as has been the case for years.
Since August, more than 400,000 members of the Rohingya community have been driven out of their homeland in Myanmar by a joint and systematic operation involving the military, the police and various Buddhist nationalist groups. They call them “clearance operations.” Thousands of Rohingya have been killed in this grave act of genocide, some in the most abhorrent and inhumane ways imaginable.
The UN Human Rights Council Commissioner Zeid Bin Ra’ad Al-Hussein has recently referred to these purges as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. There can be no other interpretation of this horrendous campaign of government-led violence. But, as thousands were pushed into the jungles or the open sea, the silence was deafening.
Only recently, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who visited Myanmar last month, also decided to label the massive human rights violations against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.” Although his statement labelled the government-centered genocide as “abuses by some among the Burmese military,” it was still a clear departure from past failures to even address the issue altogether.
Still, it was a major disappointment that the Pope abstained from mentioning the Rohingya by name while in Myanmar. He only stated their name when he crossed the border to Dhaka. In Bangladesh, using the word seemed like a safe political strategy.
Him refraining from saying “Rohingya” while in Myanmar was done as a “concession to the country’s Catholics”, according to the Washington Post. The logic goes: By challenging the popular narrative that cast the Rohingya as foreigners, the Pope would have ignited the ire of the Buddhists against the country’s Christian minority, itself persecuted, in at least two states.
If the Rohingya are to be named, it means that the core of the issue would have a better chance of being directly addressed. The moment they retain their collective identity is the moment that the Rohingya become a political entity, subject to the rights and freedoms of any minority, anywhere.
The Pope, as bold as he has been regarding other issues, has the moral authority to challenge the permeating — yet disconcerting — narrative in Myanmar that has dehumanized the Rohingya for generations.
Alas, in the end, the Pope joined the regional and international powers that insist on understanding the Rohingya crisis outside the realm of political solutions, pertaining to political rights and identity. Indeed, he is not alone. ASEAN leaders meeting in Manila, Philippines, in mid-November also made no mention of the Rohingya by name. Worse, in their 26-page final document, they mentioned the crisis in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State — the epicenter of the Rohingya genocide — in passing: “We… extend appreciation for the prompt response in the delivery of relief items for Northern Vietnam flash floods and landslides… as well as the affected communities in Northern Rakhine State.”
Standing proudly in the final photo with the rest of the leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi, who was promoted by western media for many years as a “democracy icon.”
A political opportunist at best, Aung San Suu Kyi also does not call the Rohingya by their name. Worse, her government has played a major role in dehumanizing the Rohingya and, at times, blamed them for their own suffering.
In September, in a last-ditch effort at salvaging her tattered reputation, she gave a 30-minute televised speech in which she explained her position using a most confused logic. The best she came up with was: “We are a young and fragile country facing many problems… We cannot just concentrate on the few.” The “few,” of course, being the Rohingya.
When the Pope arrived in Bangladesh, a man by the name of Mohammed Ayub was awaiting him as part of a small delegation of Rohingya refugees. Mohammed’s three-year-old son was killed by the Myanmar military. The father’s message to the Pope was not seeking humanitarian relief for despairing refugees, or even justice for his own child, but something else entirely. “He should say the word as we are, Rohingya,” Mohammed told the Catholic Crux Now. “We have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather.”
In Dhaka, the Pope attempted to reclaim that missed opportunity. “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said.