Pope Francis spends his first full day in Myanmar travelling to the country’s capital Tuesday to meet with the civilian leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a day after hosting the military general in charge of the crackdown on the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Francis’ speech to Suu Kyi, other Myanmar authorities and the diplomatic corps in Naypyitaw is the most anticipated of his visit, given the outcry over the crackdown, which the US and UN have described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to drive out the Rohingya from northern Rakhine state, the AP reports.
The operation, launched in August after Rohingya militants attacked security posts, has sent more than 0.60 million Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they have reported entire villages were burned and looted, and women and girls were raped.
Myanmar’s Catholic leaders have stressed that Suu Kyi has no voice to speak out against the military over the operation, and have urged continued support for her efforts to move Myanmar toward a more democratic future that includes all its religious minorities, Christians in particular. How Francis bridges the local Catholic concerns with his legacy of speaking out for oppressed minorities is the key to watch in his speech in Naypyitaw.
In Yangon, Pope Francis spoke to interfaith leaders at the archbishop’s residence and met separately with a prominent but controversial Buddhist leader.
The pope stressed a message of “unity in diversity” in his 40-minute meeting with Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders and told them they should work together to rebuild the country and that if they argue, they should argue like brothers, who reconcile afterward, spokesman Greg Burke said.
His meeting with Buddhist monk Sitagu Sayadaw was “always in an effort to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence as the only way ahead,” according to Burke.
Sitagu also met with Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, but has been criticised for using ethnic slurs against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, although he received an award presented by Suu Kyi earlier this year.
Francis dove into the Rohingya refugee crisis hours after arriving on Monday by meeting with the commander responsible for the crackdown, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and three members of the bureau of special operations. The Vatican didn’t provide details of the contents of the 15-minute “courtesy visit,” only to say that “They spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s office said in a statement on Facebook that he is willing to have “interfaith peace, unity and justice.” The general added that there was no religious or ethnic persecution or discrimination in Myanmar, and that the government allowed different faith groups to have freedom of worship.
Rohingya Muslims have long faced state-supported discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country and were stripped of citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food, or education.