By John Zaw and Michael Sainsbury
Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh has coaxed an overdue show of compassion from Aung San Suu Kyi for her Muslim Rohingya countrymen.
In tandem with confirmation of the typically packed papal itinerary that begins in Yangon Nov. 27 and winds up in Dhaka six days later, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party is launching an unprecedented interfaith peace prayer rally across the country.
In a welcome show of leadership by the ruling NLD party, the event, certain to cause domestic controversy amid the party’s Buddhist base, includes prayers for Rakhine, the state where the ethnic Rohingya Muslims have suffered unspeakable sometimes-deadly mistreatment at the hands of Myanmar’s military.
But although the Rohingya tragedy will rightly loom large over Pope Francis’ visit, the Vatican has taken pains to insist that the pope’s broad message is focused on peace, outreach to the Catholic minorities and interfaith dialogue. As part of that, millions of people living on the globe’s economic margins are the central theme of the visit.
Myanmar’s first Cardinal Charles Bo told ucanews.com that the pope’s motto is love and peace: Love among the ethnic groups, among the religious people and the majority Buddhist and other religions. And peace means to end decades-long civil wars, which are still raging in the country’s north.
“If we say that the pope’s visit is mainly on the Rohingya issue, it is out of context,” said Cardinal Bo.
The cardinal was sure that the pope would address the Rakhine crisis and the ongoing civil war in Kachin State in ways acceptable to Myanmar’s authorities, the military and the Buddhist majority.
Pope Francis has prayed for the persecuted Rohingya community three times, calling them “good people” who are “our brothers and sisters.”
More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in just a month following a military crackdown in Rakhine State in response to Aug. 25 attacks on government posts by Rohingya militants. Hundreds more continue to flee the ethnically divided Rakhine State.
Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has been under criticism from the international community for her lack of moral action over the plight of the Rohingya.
Inside Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya is not told, and thousands of people turn out to support Suu Kyi’s government. Many of Myanmar’s people regard the Rohingya as Bengalis, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and accuse the international media of taking a one-sided view of the ethnic group.
As if to show public support for the government, interfaith prayer services have been performed across the country beginning Oct. 10 and will be held on every Tuesday of the month.
Catholic priests, nuns, brothers and laypeople are among the 30,000 participants from different religions taking part in the interfaith prayer program in Yangon where Cardinal Bo gave a short speech Oct. 10 about peace.
Regarding the crisis in Rakhine, Cardinal Bo said the world was pointing fingers at Myanmar and telling it what to do. At this moment, the country needs to be united, he said.
“We want the world to know that we have the morals and ability to manage our own problems,” he said.
Cardinal Bo said the world needs to understand and help the NLD government. But it is important not to ignore international concerns and Myanmar should strive to uphold its image.
Nyan Win, a central executive committee member of the NLD party, said the interfaith rally was launched to pray together for peace, especially in Rakhine State.
“The pope’s visit to Myanmar is good timing for the country’s development and peace and what he says will impact the peace process of the country,” Nyan Win told ucanews.com.
Kyaw Min, a chairman of Yangon-based Rohingya party, Democracy and Human Rights, sees the interfaith prayer rally as a move by the NLD to bolster public support.
“In our country, most people follow what the religious leaders say, so the NLD government is seemingly using the opportunity to show harmony and peaceful coexistence among religions despite the deadly violence in northern Rakhine,” Kyaw Min told ucanews.com.
Kyaw Min has high hopes that the pope’s visit to Myanmar will help improve the rights of minorities in the Buddhist majority country.
Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker for hard-line Buddhist party, the Arakan National in Rakhine State, said the pope should not use the term Rohingya, which is a sensitive issue.
“The Rakhine crisis is neither religious nor communal violence between the Rakhine and the Rohingya but it is a terrorism issue that was carried out by people who are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh so Pope Francis should know this reality,” Pe Than told ucanews.com.