Pope Francis’ Visit To Myanmar Reminds Us That Words Matter – OpEd


Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Myanmar this week has once again redirected the attention of the international community to what some human rights organizations are calling the world’s biggest “forced exodus” this year.

Following an attack on government security forces on Aug. 25 by a small group of Rohingya militants in Rakhine state, the Myanmar military has carried out a scorched-earth operation that has resulted in the deaths and displacement of thousands of members of the ethnic and religious minority. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people have been displaced since August, most of them crossing into neighboring Bangladesh.

To complicate this conflict further, not only have Myanmar officials denied any wrongdoing, but it has long been the government’s policy not to even refer to the Rohingya by their name, referring to them as Bengalis instead. Rohingya activists have long maintained that this policy is part and parcel of the government’s systematic campaign to discriminate against them in myriad ways.

The military campaign has included allegations of summary executions of civilians, rape and burning of entire villages. It has led the UN’s top human rights official Zeid Raad Al-Hussein to observe that “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

These policies have led to widespread condemnation of the Myanmar government, including de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her status as a tireless defender of human rights has been tarnished as she has seemingly refused to criticize or even challenge the policies of the military.

Into this tempest entered Pope Francis earlier this week. Although still relatively early in his papacy, he has consistently used his pulpit to call for peaceful coexistence and respect for the lives and dignities of all human beings. In the past few months, he has addressed the crisis in Myanmar, drawing attention to the suffering of “our brother and sister Rohingya.”

But during his current visit so far, the Pope has avoided addressing the crisis directly, and is yet to use the term Rohingya. However, he is expected to visit a small group of refugees in Bangladesh before he returns home.

Like previous cases of suspected ethnic cleansing or even genocide — the two that come to mind are Bosnia and Rwanda — the international community seems sincere in its condemnation of the violence, and appears to be searching for a means to resolve it. The US, for instance, has strongly condemned the policies of the Myanmar military, and insisted that “those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable.”

Saudi Arabia has pledged millions of dollars’ worth of economic assistance for refugees in Bangladesh, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) has sent a representative to evaluate the needs of the refugee camps. Although Bangladesh has given thousands of those escaping the military campaign refuge, the influx of refugees has put an economic and political strain on the country.

The international community should continue to bring attention to this crisis, and to call on the government of Myanmar to stop denying this ethnic and religious minority its most basic rights, including the right to be secure in their person and homes.

The Pope’s visit highlights what appears to be true about any conflict in the world: It is not only actions that matter; so do words. Based on the advice of church officials in Myanmar, he has thus far avoided using the term Rohingya.

He no doubt appreciates the diplomatic sensitivity of this visit, and does not want to cause a row with his guests. That does not mean Myanmar officials should be allowed to deny what has been well documented by rights organizations, including those affiliated with the UN.

Calls to end the suffering and systematic discrimination against the Rohingya should not be framed solely in sectarian terms. It is important that the crisis not be portrayed as part of a global campaign to oppress Muslims.

While it is perfectly understandable for leaders of Muslim countries to express their support for the Rohingya, who are Muslim, it is also important not to compound this tragedy by allowing extremists and terrorist groups to exploit this conflict by including their false narrative.

Extremists and terrorists have long maintained that there is a global war against Muslims, and that Daesh and Al-Qaeda are fighting to defend Muslims. As the recent attack at Al-Rawda mosque in Egypt’s Sinai reminds us, that could not be further from the truth. Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have waged a brutal war against Muslims.

Let us not corroborate their narrative by framing the Rohingya crisis as purely religious in nature. The last thing these beleaguered people need is radicalized young men from other countries traveling to theirs to carry out violent acts. That will only make matters worse.

*Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.

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