By Michael Sainsbury, Yangon and John Zaw and Nay Pyi Taw
Pope Francis has avoided any specific mention of Myanmar’s multiple conflicts, including the Rohingya refugee crisis, during his Nov. 28 public address set piece at the national capital Nay Pyi Taw.
Instead, the first trip ever to a country by any pope, he chose to broadly address the importance of peace, tolerance, respect for religious differences and the duty of current generations toward the young, when he spoke to diplomats, politicians and civil society representatives at the national parliament.
“The arduous process of peace-building and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights,” Pope Francis said. “Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building,”
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.
“The future of Myanmar in a rapidly changing and interconnected world will depend on the training of its young, not only in technical fields, but above all in the ethical values of honesty, integrity and human solidarity that can ensure the consolidation of democracy and the growth of unity and peace at every level of society.”
Human rights groups expressed disappointment that the pontiff had remained silent about the Rohingya tragedy, which has seen 620,000 people flood into neighboring Bangladesh with stories of murder, rape, pillage and property destruction by the Myanmar military.
But the pontiff had been begged by Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, the country’s only cardinal, as well as former UN chief Kofi Annan not to mention the group by their self–determined name of Rohingya, for fear of sparking sectarian violence.
Rohingya is a term that majority of Myanmar’s people now shun in favor of “Bengali” or as civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi says, “Rakhine Muslims” while referring to their home state and religion.
Kyaw Min, chairman of the Yangon-based Democracy and Human Rights Rohingya Party, said it is not surprising that the pope didn’t use the term “Rohingya” as church leaders in Myanmar had already urged him to avoid it. “But I believe the pope raised the Rohingya issue during his meeting with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.
“The pope’s visit to Myanmar may have am impact on the peace process but it is less likely to have one on the Rakhine crisis issue as Myanmar’s leaders are stubborn and may not soften their hearts. But we don’t lose hope with the pope” Kyaw Min told ucanews.com.
UCAN Executive Director Father Michael Kelly, SJ, like the pope a Jesuit, said it was “unsurprisingly there was nothing explicit about the thing people were wondering if he would speak about while he was here. The reality is that despite the horror of the situation, the Rohingya are the tip of the iceberg in Myanmar.”
The Rohingya exodus is the latest blot on the record of Myanmar’s aggressive military which has waged civil war against freedom fighters from a range of ethnic groups that surround the center where the Bamar people live, leaving at least 250,000 people today in internal displacement camps in Myanmar’s north and across its border in Thailand.
Father Kelly said that in his repeated references to “tolerance” and “justice” there was a typically coded message from the pope about the present crisis but added: “What can people expect: he’s not from Myanmar he is a visitor to the country, the head of state of a sovereign country and Catholics account for less than 1 per cent of the population?”
The pontiff was introduced by Suu Kyi following a private meeting between the two, who also met in Rome in May where the idea that Pope Francis my travel to the strife torn country was considered.
Ahead of the meeting with Suu Kyi, Pope Francis paid a courtesy call on the nation’s president Htin Kyaw.
Ahead of taking the hour-long flight to Nay Pyi Daw, which replaced Yangon as the country’s capital in 2008, the pontiff met with a controversial senior Buddhist monk as well had a separate gathering of interfaith leaders.
On the morning of Nov. 29 he will celebrate an open air Mass in Yangon with at least 40 other priests, bishops and cardinals. About 200,000 people are expected to attend.