In Myanmar, Pope Francis has to choose between speaking up for Rohingya or protecting Christians

Papal advisors have told Pope Francis to avoid using the name for the persecuted Muslim minority in order to protect the small, fragile Christian community.

Pope Francis arrives in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017.  The pontiff is in Myanmar for the first stage of a week-long visit that will also take him to neighboring Bangladesh. (CREDIT: L'Osservatore Romano/AP Photo)
Pope Francis arrives in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. The pontiff is in Myanmar for the first stage of a week-long visit that will also take him to neighboring Bangladesh. (CREDIT: L'Osservatore Romano/AP Photo)

The extent of Myanmar’s control over how its crackdown on the Rohingya is addressed came into sharp focus with Pope Francis’s visit there this week.

Reuters reported on Monday that the pope met with the country’s military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in Yangon, but it’s unclear if he addressed the government’s treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless group with no citizenship rights in Myanmar, in the 15-minute meeting. The pope will also lead mass for 150,000 people on Wednesday.

“They discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said of the meeting. Reuters also reported that the pope was advised to not even use the word “Rohingya” while on his visit, lest the authorities use that as an excuse to crack down on the also-persecuted Christian minority of roughly 700,000 in the country.

According to the New York Times, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar is among those who has cautioned against using the word: “It is a very contested term, and the military and government and the public would not like him to express it,” said Bo, who added that the pope should should address the issue in “a way that doesn’t hurt anybody.”

But the Rohingya are already hurting, to put it mildly.

A Muslim minority of roughly 1.1 million in the Buddhist-majority country of around 53 million, the Rohingya — derisively referred to as “Bengalis” in Myanmar — have been the target of what the U.N. calls “ethnic cleansing” since late August, after insurgents carried out deadly attacks on police posts there.


Since then, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Those who have remained have faced starvation and what Amnesty International calls crimes against humanity and apartheid. Hundreds of their villages have been burned and reclaimed as government land, and an untold number have been killed or have drowned — including infants — trying to make it to Bangladesh.

The government of Myanmar categorically denies charges of ethnic cleansing or even of a bloody crackdown, insisting that it is fighting terrorists and that the Rohingya are, in fact, burning down their own villages.

If the pope chooses to avoid the subject directly, he will not be the first to do so in the interest of keeping the peace. Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has sided with the military in its operations against the Rohingya in order to maintain power and stability. International criticism was slow to pour in even as evidence of mass rapes and other atrocities mounted, with the United States only last week following the U.N.’s lead of calling what’s happening in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing.”

And China and India, which have lucrative deals with Myanmar, support the government there, with the former poised to block any additional sanctions against the state in the U.N. Security Council.


The pontiff will also visit Bangladesh on Thursday, where some 800,000 Rohinyga — which includes families who fled previous waves of violence in 2012 and 2016 — have been living in cramped refugee camps. There has been talk of repatriating them, even though it’s unclear when the hostilities will end and where to, exactly, the Rohingya can return.

Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal on Thursday, even though fighting still continues, and according to Agence France Presse, 3,000 additional Rohingya have fled Myanmar since then. It’s also unclear if the U.N.’s refugee agency will have a role in the repatriation, ensuring that the rights of the returnees are protected.

Following past crackdowns, Rohingya have been forced to live in camps, and given that most of their villages have been razed and their land reclaimed by the government under a “redevelopment” law, it remains to be seen where those who choose to return can live.

Reuters also reports that the U.N. Human Rights Council is planning to hold a special session on the crimes against the Rohingya on December 5.