YANGON, Myanmar – When popes travel, they usually want to deliver a message of justice, dignity and peace, while also strengthening relations with their host governments. Often it’s not terribly difficult to bring those two aims together, but every once in a while it feels more like a walk through a verbal and political minefield.
Such may be the case for Pope Francis beginning today, as he opens a Nov. 26-Dec. 2 trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
This is the first-ever papal stop in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, where Francis clearly wants to express his support for the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. It’s hard to see how he’ll be able to do that without antagonizing the country’s political and military leadership — which, for the record, doesn’t even recognize the Rohingya as citizens.
An estimated 600,000 Rohingya Muslims are believed to have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, the next stop on Francis’s itinerary beginning Nov. 30.
The Rohingya have faced persecution for decades, and were denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by Myanmar’s military regime in 1982. They’re officially – and, in the eyes of many experts, deceptively – considered “Bengali interlopers.”
The current round of violence and oppression, featuring operations by the Myanmar military that the United Nations have described as “textbook ethnic cleansing,” was exacerbated on August 25, when Rohingya insurgents set some 30 police outposts on fire.
The army responded with what were called “clearance operations.” Since then, no foreign organization, from the United Nations to news agencies, has been allowed into Rakhine state, where the Rohingya have lived for generations. However, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who’ve spoken to human right groups claim the military sweep involved indiscriminate murder, arson, rape and forced removals.
In addition, Buddhist nationalist mobs have been accused of attacking Rohingya across Rakhine state.
Last year, Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi established a nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to “consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine.” Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was among the members.
The government previously said it would implement the commission’s recommendations, which were presented a day before the latest escalation of violence.
On Thursday, the government of Bangladesh announced an agreement between the two countries for the repatriation of the refugees that would begin within the next two months, though no more details were provided.
Who are the Rohingya?
Also called “Muslims from Rakhine State” by Myanmar, and “undocumented Muslims from Myanmar,” by Bangladesh, they’re considered one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Ancestors of most Rohingya arrived in Myanmar in the 1800s and early 1900s, brought from Bangladesh by the British, who wanted cheap labor during the colonization period. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh see them as nationals nor refugees, and the estimated two million of them are essentially stateless.
They’ve been running from one country to the other for years, fleeing violence from both hostile states and religious fundamentalists, mostly Buddhist nationalists. The Rohingya have responded in kind, with the burning of 30 police stations with only the latest attack by one of their militias.
In October 2016, Rohingya militants murdered nine police officers in a coordinated attack on three police outposts in northern Rakhine State. This year, the Myanmar Army responded with brutal force. Army soldiers killed civilians, raped women and girls, and razed entire villages, displacing more than 90,000 civilians.
Due to their undefined legal status, thousands have been inclined to leave both countries, heading towards Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia, countries that at least claim to be open to the Rohingya.
However, to get there, the majority go through networks of human trafficking, and when their families are unable to pay for the debts they incur during the trip -which can last weeks- they’re sold to industries that need cheap, if not slave labor, such as Thailand’s fishing industry that feeds into the United States and Australia.
Pope Francis and the “R” word
The Argentine pontiff has referred to the Rohingya on multiple occasions. The last time he did so was August 27, a day before papal spokesman American Greg Burke confirmed the trip would take place.
“Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority,” Francis said after his Sunday 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.”
However, ahead of the trip, Cardinal Charles Bo, of Myanmar, has urged the pope not to use the “R” word during the first leg of his trip, or if he does so, to do it indirectly, by calling them people who “self-identify as Rohingya.”
Bo is afraid that if the pope were to utter the word, massive protests by Buddhists could endanger the country’s fragile democracy, not to mention put lives at risks with what he called “extremists monks” going after the Muslim minority.
If Francis chooses to follow the advice, which Burke said the pontiff “takes very seriously,” he risks angering NGOs and human rights groups. However, it wouldn’t be unprecedented: prioritizing diplomatic relations with Myanmar, the United Nations avoided using the term for a long time too, and when former Secretary General Ban Ki Moon used it last year, he did so indirectly.
Rohingya Muslims on the ground, however, have a different take. A Rohingya political and religious activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said he doesn’t care if the pope uses the term or not.
“He’s already used it, and more importantly, he called us his brothers and sisters,” he said.
“The Holy Father Francis using the term is not the issue nor the solution,” he told Crux on Saturday.
He said that what the Rohingya expect from Francis is to call in the favor Aung San Suu Kyi has asked of him, by asking Bo to convey the message not to use the “R” word.
“I would ask him to ask something of her: to solve this problem definitely,” he said.
According to the Rohingya, the pope should tell her to find a “a just solution for these people who’ve been suffering for decades,” instead of “giving lame excuses.”
He wouldn’t venture to say what the solution would look like, but he did insist that the only way to solve the problem once and for all is by listening and dialoguing with the Rohingya.
“She keeps running away from us,” said the activist, whose great grandfather served as a minister during Myanmar’s first democratic government after independence in the 1950s. “Without talking with us, listening to these people who are really suffering, we won’t find a solution. As victims, we have to be part of the solution.”
He lives in Yangon, and he’s safe there. However, two of his sisters and an aunt lost everything in the attacks against the Rohingya in Arakan State in 2012. “They were wealthy people, and overnight they became refugees.” Their houses were torched, and they currently live in camps for internally displaced people within Myanmar.
Responding to the military government’s declaration that the Rohingya are not citizens of Myanmar, he believes it’s just an “excuse” to rid the country of its Muslim population.
“If we’re not citizens of this country, then please explain to me why before their government we were ministers, parliamentarians, in the army and the police forces,” he said.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi has to find a solution, he insisted, not only for the Rohingya but for Christians, who are persecuted as well, even if at a lesser level: “They have no religious rights in this country,” he said.
The Rohingya today
This September, after the last exodus began, the United Nations migration agency warned that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are now “at the mercy” of human traffickers. After arriving with no money, no food, no clean water, no shelter and not speaking the local language, they’re at the mercy of anyone who offers to help.
Some 600,000 people have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in a span of three months.
Among those trying to prevent them falling pray to slavery networks is the Catholic aid agency Caritas Bangladesh, which is part of the broader umbrella group Caritas Internationalis. They’re currently providing what Caroline Brennan defined as “life-saving relief” to some 68,000 people.
Brennan works for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the international aid agency of the United States bishops’ conference. CRS is partners with Caritas Bangladesh.
“Our support will expand per needs on the ground, and likely prioritize safe shelter, clean water and sanitation, and dignified camp infrastructure,” she told Crux days after returning from Bangladesh. She was in the southeastern border, where thousands still arrive in small wooden boats, “filled to the brim with families.”
She saw men carrying their mothers in buckets, too weak to walk after a two-week journey and spoke with mothers who lost their grownup sons in the middle of the night, separated in a desperate attempt to remain unnoticed by Myanmar’s military going after them, as a hunter searches for his prey. They’re physically and emotionally exhausted, Brennan said, after swimming past bodies in the river to get to the safe haven the camps have become.
What she encountered in Bangladesh were “massive and sprawling” refugee centers, set up in what up until July were greeneries. She describes them as one of the largest refugee camps she’s ever seen after years working in the humanitarian field, and she’s not alone. Journalists reporting from the ground have compared them to those set up in Kenya amidst the Rwandan genocide.
Those who’ve arrived, are now in a desperate “state of in between,” not knowing how long they’ll be able to stay or how soon they’ll be allowed to go back home. “They’re in great need in quality shelter, drainage, sanitation,” Brennan said.
It’s not dignified nor safe from diseases, and violence could break out in the centers, “but at the same time, they’re relieved to be living there,” Brennan said.