Pope calls for religious tolerance in majority-Buddhist Myanmar
1 December, 2017
Pope Francis made last week historic visit in the majority-Buddhist Myanmar, the first ever by a sitting Pontiff, as the country was criticised for ethnic cleansing of the minority Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State. The Pope urged the country's leaders to commit themselves to justice, human rights and respect for "each ethnic group and its identity". He held private talks with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who are part of a delicate power-sharing arrangement as the country emerges from decades of junta rule. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and champion of democracy has faced international criticism for expressing doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failing to condemn the military, observers recall.
Pope avoided a diplomatic backlash by not using the highly charged term "Rohingya" in his addresses to officials. Myanmar rejects the term "Rohingya" and its use, with most people instead referring to the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Before the diplomatically risky trip, the Pope's own advisers recommended that he does not use the term "Rohingya" in Myanmar, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country's military and Government against minority Christians. Richard Horsey, a former UN official and analyst based in Yangon, told Reuters the Pope's speech was "very cautiously worded" and "crafted to avoid antagonising local audiences". Suu Kyi said in her speech that there had been an erosion of trust and understanding between communities of Rakhine state, but did not refer to the Rohingya.
Francis had scheduled to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip later in the week. More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since the end of August. Less than 5% of Myanmar's 51m population are Muslims, about 1% are Catholics.