- - Sunday, November 26, 2017

BANGKOK — The first-ever visit by a Roman Catholic pontiff to Buddhist-majority Myanmar on Monday will be closely watched for how Pope Francis confronts the country’s bloody and internationally condemned military campaign against more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

It will be an unusually delicate diplomatic trip for the Argentine-born pope. The U.S. and countries in the region still are trying to formulate a policy to curtail one of the world’s biggest refugee and humanitarian crises.

The trip became even more delicate last week when the Trump administration escalated its criticism of the Myanmar government. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Wednesday officially accused the government of “ethnic cleansing” and threatened penalties for military officials engaged in the brutal crackdown that has sent an estimated 600,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing over the border to Bangladesh.

Although the military has accused Rohingya insurgents of triggering the crisis, Mr. Tillerson, who visited the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw last week, argued that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued.”

The highlight of the pontiff’s three-day trip starting Monday will be talks with de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the once-acclaimed Nobel Peace Prize winner whose silence about the suffering of the Rohingya sharply contrasts with Francis’ statement in August lamenting the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters.”

If the Argentine-born pope stresses the Rohingya crisis while in Myanmar, it will embarrass and dismay his hosts. But if he silences himself, many others will be deeply disappointed. Compounding the pressure, the pope has been an outspoken critic of European nations that have tried to close their borders to a flood of refugees fleeing crises in Syria, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

The Vatican announced Wednesday that the pope’s itinerary will include a private meeting with Myanmar’s military chief and an “interreligious” meeting with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh after he leaves Myanmar. Myanmar’s Catholic leaders have urged the pope not to use provocative language when describing the Rohingya crisis, but it was Myanmar Cardinal Charles Maung Bo who reportedly proposed adding the meeting with military leaders to the pope’s schedule.

The pope “has to be very careful so that we can still communicate with the new government, with the military, as well as with the people in general,” Cardinal Bo recently told The Wall Street Journal.

Bangladesh and Myanmar on Thursday announced a tentative deal to establish a system for allowing Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar, but the process could take years and will do little to ease the immediate humanitarian crisis.

During the pope’s visit, “he will speak for all suffering people belonging to all groups present in Myanmar,” the Rev. Carlo Velardo, an attache at The Holy See’s Apostolic Nunciature in Bangkok, said in an interview. “Focusing on only one group, with due respect for those subject to this dire situation, would not be fair to other internally displaced persons belonging to other groups who share the same unfortunate situation.”

Father Velardo said he was speaking in his personal capacity and not expressing the official position of the Apostolic Nunciature or The Holy See, the Roman Catholic Church’s government at the Vatican.

It established full diplomatic relations with Myanmar in May and does not have an embassy in Myanmar.

In addition to meeting Ms. Suu Kyi, Pope Francis will pay “a courtesy visit” to President Htin Kyaw in Naypyitaw. He will also visit the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist Monks at the Kaba Aye Pagoda in the commercial port of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.

The pope will pray with devotees at a Mass on the outskirts of Yangon and at Yangon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. In an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, Christians represent the second-largest denomination with 55 million people, about 6.2 percent, according to a 2014 survey.

The first stop by any pope in Myanmar will be followed by Francis’ three-day visit to neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh starting Thursday. Bangladesh hosted Pope John Paul II on a visit in 1986.

Refugee crisis

Wounded, terrified and abandoned, Rohingya refugees have been fleeing military assaults against their impoverished villages in western Myanmar during the past three months. More than 600,000 of Myanmar’s total 1.1 million Rohingya are sheltering in miserable refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The 400,000 Rohingyas who remain in Myanmar languish in resettlement camps or fenced zones in Rakhine state suffering racial and religious persecution, according to human rights groups.

“All the apostolic visits of the Holy Father are made in the context of going to the peripheries — that is to meet and encourage people that, for various reasons, are on the fringe,” Father Velardo said.

The priest added that Francis’ milestone trip was not meant as a “propaganda exercise.”

“It is an expression of his fatherly concern not only for his own flock — so that they may be confirmed in their faith — but also directed to all those who are in need of sincere encouragement in order to be strengthened in their endeavors to emerge from their situation of suffering,” the attache said.

The pope’s Myanmar visit “is also an appeal to all those in authority to revise their ways and work for the good of the people under their care,” Father Velardo said.

Vatican Radio broadcast Pope Francis‘ support for the Rohingya in August.

“Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority,” the pope told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square after an Angelus prayer. “I would like to express my full closeness to them and let all of us ask the Lord to save them and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”

About 700,000 Catholics live in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The church has three archdioceses in the country, where archbishops are responsible, plus 13 dioceses under bishops.

Ms. Suu Kyi is foreign minister, state councilor and effectively head of the civilian government despite being barred from serving as the head of government. Her authority, however, does not fully extend to the military, which only grudgingly agreed to share power after decades in control in 2015.

Despite her Nobel Prize and long record as a dissident and advocate for democracy, Ms. Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized by international human rights groups, activists, analysts and others for refusing to publicly identify the Muslims in western Rakhine state as “Rohingya.” She insists on calling them a Muslim minority or, in some cases, ethnic Bengalis.

The Rohingya’s identification is crucial to their fate.

Myanmar’s military claims it is expelling illegal Bengali migrants who have no right to live in Rakhine but who call themselves “Rohingya” in a failed bid to become citizens.

The Rohingya insist they are a legitimate ethnic group descended from generations of ancestors who lived in Rakhine, also known as Arakan state.

Now stateless, they are denied citizenship in Myanmar because of what critics say is widespread racial and religious resentment endorsed by many of Myanmar’s Buddhist establishment.

Meanwhile, a tiny Muslim insurgency led by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and backed by supporters in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh has attacked Myanmar’s security forces, prompting the military’s harsh response.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s defenders say she does not mention the word “Rohingya” because she wants to stay in power and she otherwise would lose support among most Buddhists.

The dominant military figure in Myanmar, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is the commander in chief who also runs the ministries of defense, border affairs and interior. He directly oversees the anti-Rohingya campaign.

“I haven’t been silent,” Ms. Suu Kyi told reporters when she met with Mr. Tillerson on Nov. 15 in Naypyitaw. “What people mean is, what I say is not interesting enough. But what I say is not meant to be exciting. It’s meant to be accurate.”


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