Pope Francis met with Myanmar’s military commander on Monday during the first-ever papal visit to the Southeast Asian country amid scathing criticism by the international community over the government’s handling of the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Rakhine state.
At a brief meeting in the commercial capital Yangon, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the pontiff that “no religious 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.
Min Aung Hlaing told the pope that people in Myanmar are given the right to worship freely, that there is no inter-ethnic discrimination in the country, and that the military works for peace and stability in Myanmar, according to a post on his official Facebook page.
Pope Francis has spoken out on Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, who are disparagingly referred to as “Bengalis” because they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
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 following a deadly attack blamed on Muslim militants, Pope Francis publicly called for prayers for the Muslim minority group.
He told a group of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican, that he was saddened by the news “of the persecution of a religious minority, our Rohingya brothers and sisters,” Catholic News Service reported at the time.
“Let us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, that they may be given full rights,” the pope said.
Before the pontiff’s visit to Myanmar, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, cautioned Pope Francis to refrain from using the word “Rohingya,” which government and military leaders do not recognize.
Earlier this month, the cardinal spoke out against what he called “very unfair” criticism by the international community of Nobel Peace laureate and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s perceived indifference to the plight of the Rohingya.
Greeted by thousands
Thousands of Myanmar’s estimated 700,000 Catholics came from across the country to greet Pope Francis as he rode through the streets of Yangon.
A Catholic priest who gave his name as Father Michael said the pope's visit will have a positive bearing on peace and stability in Myanmar.
“He has come here to do something to resolve the problems with the peace process and with unity within ethnic groups and other difficulties,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Because he is not only visiting Myanmar, but also meeting and talking with the nation’s leaders, I think the problems he wants to resolve will be achieved.”
Sister Cilia Daw Daw, a Catholic nun from Kengtung, a town in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state, also expressed encouragement about the pope’s visit.
“God will arrange good things for us during his visit,” she said. “The pope will encourage us to live peacefully together, so we must try to achieve this.”
The pontiff is also scheduled to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, cabinet members, diplomats, leaders of religious associations, and Catholics in Yangon and Naypyidaw before heading to Bangladesh for a two-day visit on Thursday. He is scheduled to meet with a group of Rohingya in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
The pope’s visit comes on the heels of an agreement that Myanmar signed with Bangladesh on Nov. 23 to begin repatriating Rohingya who have been displaced by the recent crackdown and are living in refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
The agreement, however, did not include information about the use of temporary shelters for those who return to Myanmar.
Some rights groups and United Nations organizations argue that conditions for the safe return of the Rohingya are not yet in place, and that those who have lost their homes have nowhere to return and that they will continue to encounter systematic discrimination.
On Monday, the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue welcomed the agreement, which applies to Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh who fled two major crackdowns in northern Rakhine since October 2016.
But the center also expressed dismay that the agreement failed to include roughly 400,000 Rohingya refugees who have been living in camps in Bangladesh since before that time.
“We therefore call on the international community to insist that a solution be found urgently to end the predicament of all refugees who have fled to Bangladesh,” said Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, the group’s executive director.
The think tank also appealed for those responsible for committing atrocities against the Rohingya to be held accountable for their actions.
“[W]e appeal to the Human Rights Council and to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to make sure that allegations of crimes committed be investigated and to ensure that all perpetrators of human rights violations be held accountable and prosecuted,” Jazairy said.
Meanwhile, Rohingya refugees are still fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, Agence France-Presse reported on Monday, citing a Bangladeshi border guard commander.
The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold special session in Geneva on Dec. 5 on crimes committed against Rohingya in Myanmar, Reuters reported on Monday, citing unnamed U.N. sources.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.