By Father Michael Kelly SJ*
The much-anticipated second meeting between Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi, following a get together in Rome in May, will disappoint those who expected an attentive focus on the Rohingya.
Both speeches — the first by the State Counsellor welcoming the pope and then the pope’s response — were long on what Myanmar needs to get anywhere as a new nation and short on any specific focus on any of the country’s manifold problems, most notably the one that has captured the attention of many and horrified most — the Rohingya, 620,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh to escape the brutality of the Myanmar military.
However, there were plenty of coded messages in both speeches to say that both people acknowledge just what a savage and dismaying mess the country is in. There was even the specific reference to it by Suu Kyi — in code as the “still outstanding problems in Rakhine State go unresolved.”
That was about as close as either party could be expected to get to addressing the issue in short addresses. Suu Kyi’s speech was hardly different to the one she gave to the diplomatic corps accredited to Myanmar on Sept. 19, 2017. She recognized the need for an inclusive approach to nation-building, respect for national and religious minorities and that the only stable future the country could look forward to was one based on the rule of law.
The pope rehearsed a well-developed list of basics required if a society was to prosper: Respect for diversity, inclusion of all groups in national processes, a specific emphasis on education and skill training to give the young, in the very young population of Myanmar, some hope for the future.
But that is as far as either went and really could go and the reason why the word Rohingya wasn’t uttered.
Firstly, constraining Suu Kyi are some basic facts: she doesn’t really run Myanmar and never will as long as its 2008 Constitution is in place; she has absolutely no control of the national army and border force that has been doing the deeds and probably didn’t find out that it was happening until everyone else did – after it began and through the media.
Moreover, she knows that a majority of her country actually think that the comprehensively Buddhist culture that underpins the nation is at risk of being overrun by Muslims and Islamic extremists. Mad as it sounds, this is a widely held fear in Myanmar that is inflamed by extremist Buddhist monks and is one of the reasons why the Rohingya are so loathed.
Several factors go into what Pope Francis can actually say.
It is seriously preposterous to suggest that the pope could address the Rohingya crisis in the capital of Myanmar on his first visit to the country. He is the Head of State of another country and has been invited to Myanmar by its President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung Sun Suu Kyi.
Moreover, he is the leader of a religious community that accounts for a little over 1 percent of the national population and parts of which, has received similar treatment from the military in the country’s north and east in particular. Tens of thousands of Catholics are among the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Myanmar — rendered so by the unresolved civil wars and abusive treatment by the military.
The sight of Pope Francis on the barricades is a serious misreading of what he can and should do while he’s here. Stir up the local scene and flee within 48 hours to leave local Catholics to take the beating they would get is neither courageous nor wise, or even worse trigger broader sectarian violence across the country. That is a very real threat that human rights groups who have begged him to address this issue on Myanmar soil appear to conveniently ignore.
But Pope Francis, unlike Suu Kyi, gets a second chance, in Bangladesh the second leg of this draining trip to two of Asia’s poorest nations. The master of the telling symbolic act, Pope Francis can show more in deed than word when he gets to Dhaka where his mind is on the matter and has flagged plans to meet Rohingya refugees.
*Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.