Pope Francis

Pope chooses right words in Myanmar

By not mentioning the terms Rohingya and Bengali, Francis steered clear of controversy and possible reprisals against the already persecuted minority

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 1:07am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 1:07am

Pope Francis is not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also a politician, statesman and moral leader. He was therefore expected by those worried about the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority to forcefully raise the matter during a four-day visit to the country. But his keynote speech was devoid of direct mention, instead making veiled references to the refugee crisis. It was the right approach; pragmatic considerations are necessary when dealing with sensitive issues.

Rights activists are disappointed that the pope did not stand up for the long-persecuted Rohingya, who many Myanmese consider illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh despite having lived in the country for generations. The pontiff’s visit came in the wake of 620,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border from northwestern Rakhine state to escape an army crackdown described by the United Nations as ethnic cleansing. Refugees in Bangladeshi camps allege villages were burned and looted and that there was widespread murder, rape and torture.

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Francis had previously decried the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters”. But with authorities shunning the term and instead using “Bengali” to highlight their refusal to recognise that the ethnic group has the right of citizenship, the world was watching to see which word the pontiff would use. He used neither, and instead said the nation’s future “must be peace, a peace based on the respect of the rights and dignity of each member of society, respect of each ethnic group and its identity”. Seated beside him was de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been widely criticised in the West for her perceived inaction to end the crisis.

The pope had good reason for choosing his words carefully, just as Suu Kyi has been restrained in her reaction; the military and militant Buddhists have a strong hand. Francis had been advised by Catholic leaders to avoid controversy out of fear of reprisals. He has since gone to the refugee camps in a show of humanity and unity. The right tack has been taken; resolving the crisis requires pragmatism and diplomacy, while confrontation will only cause anger.