UPDATED AT 12:14 P.M. EST ON 2017-11-29
Pope Francis on Tuesday urged Myanmar’s leaders to "respect human rights" in a veiled reference to the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims who have been the target of a violent military crackdown that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country.
The pontiff refrained from using the term “Rohingya” in discussions with officials, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refers to them disparagingly as “Bengalis.”
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Catholic archbishop of Yangon, had cautioned Pope Francis not to use the highly divisive word during his four-day visit to Myanmar which began on Monday.
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good,” the pope said, addressing Myanmar’s de factor leader Aung San Suu Kyi and diplomats in the capital Naypyidaw.
On Monday, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, told the pontiff that no religious or ethnic discrimination existed in Myanmar despite evidence and allegations of ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine where a military crackdown has driven out more than 620,000 Rohingya.
Rights groups and some of the refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh have accused soldiers of indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson, though both the army and the Myanmar government have denied the allegations.
Rights groups also have published satellite images documenting the destruction of villages.
The pope spoke publicly in late August about the persecution of the Muslims just after the military began its crackdown on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by Muslim militants.
For decades, Myanmar has subjected the Rohingya to systematic discrimination by depriving them of citizenship and access to basic services, though many have lived in the country for generations.
After initial reports surfaced in late August of Rohingya fleeing the army crackdown in northern Rakhine, Pope Francis publicly said he was saddened by the news “of the persecution of a religious minority, our Rohingya brothers and sisters.”
But on Tuesday, his public statements deliberately avoided any mention of the group or the violent campaign recently waged against it in ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine state.
“Unity is always a product of diversity,” the pope told religious leaders representing different faiths in the commercial capital Yangon, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported, citing a briefing by Vatican officials.
“Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share,” Pope Francis said. “And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.”
Pope Francis will meet with Buddhist monks from the Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), the government-appointed body that regulates the Buddhist clergy, on Wednesday in Yangon.
After the pope leaves Myanmar on Thursday, he will head to Bangladesh where he will meet with a group of Rohingya in the capital Dhaka.
Applications to return
The pope’s visit comes less than a week after Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya displaced by the August crackdown in northern Rakhine state and a second campaign in October 2016. The refugees are living in vast displaced persons camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
The agreement, however, did not include information about the use of temporary shelters for those who return to Myanmar where their previous homes have been burned down.
On Tuesday, Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the new agreement is based primarily on an existing one from 1993 under which Myanmar agreed to accept back refugees from Bangladesh if they could prove previous residency in the country.
The agreement does not identify the Rohingya by their ethnic group’s name and covers only about 700,000 who escaped to southeastern Bangladesh in two waves since late last year, including more than 620,000 who fled from the outbreak of violence in Rakhine in late August.
Roughly 350,000 to 400,000 other refugees who fled earlier cycles of violence are sheltering across the border in Bangladesh.
“We are going to check and accept people who really lived in Myanmar,” Myint Kyaing said. “We gave cards or documents to each of them. If they can’t show them, then we have a list of people who lived in the region with numbers in each household and their photos. The immigration ministry collects this list every year.”
Some rights groups have surmised that that many Rohingya refugees failed to take theri identification documents with them as they fled their burning villages in northern Rakhine during the two crackdowns.
Those who plan to return to Myanmar must complete application forms and submit them with their photos, Myint Kyaing said.
“We will check their forms against the documents and photos we have,” he said. “If we find that they really lived in Myanmar and they were not involved with any terrorist group, then they will be accepted.”
Five sentenced, then let go
Elsewhere in Yangon on Monday, Myanmar authorities sentenced five extremist nationalists to six months in jail on Tuesday for their involvement in a confrontation between Buddhists and Muslims in May in a neighborhood where monks had claimed that ethnic Rohingya Muslims were hiding “illegally.”
Two people were injured in the melee in Mingala Taungnyunt township in the east-central part of the city, during which police fired warning shots in the air to disperse a crowd that had gathered following an altercation between monks and Muslim residents.
Tin Lin Htike, Tin Htay Aung, Tin Htut Zaw, Ma Aung Aung Myint, and Phone Myint Mo were charged on May 9 with incitement to commit violence under section 505(c) of the country’s Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine.
But because the men had already served six months in custody, they were immediately released, said their lawyer Aye Paing.
“They were sentenced today, and the judge said they could receive a deduction for their time in custody,” he said. “They are free today, because they have been detained for more than six months.”
Thuseitta and Pyanyar Wuntha, two monks from the Patriotic Young Monks Union who were arrested along with the five men for their involvement in the confrontation, were also charged with incitement in court on Tuesday, but they were not detained, he said.
Reported by Khet Mar, Aung Theinkha, and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.