NAY PYI TAW, Myanmar – Although Pope Francis surprised many by meeting with Myanmar’s military leadership shortly after arriving in Yangon on Monday, on Tuesday the pontiff balanced the scales by delivering a speech offering clear support for democratic government, and encouraging a transition looking to leave six decades of military rule behind.
“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,” Francis said.
In his address Tuesday, the pope avoided using the term “Rohingya” to refer to the country’s persecuted Muslim ethnic minority. The government doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as citizens, claiming they’re actually “interlopers” from Bengal. The pope has been asked by his own local cardinal to avoid referring to them directly, despite an ongoing crisis that has been defined by the U.N. and others as “ethnic cleansing.”
Yet Francis didn’t give the country a free pass either, noting that the people of Myanmar are the country’s greatest strength, but they’ve “suffered greatly, and continue to suffer, from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions.”
The healing of those wounds, the pope said, “must be a paramount political and spiritual priority.
“Indeed, the arduous process of peacebuilding and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights,” he added.
His words came on Tuesday, during the first programmed remarks of his Nov. 27-30 visit to Myanmar, a country that up until two years ago was ruled by a military government, and which is today undergoing a fragile transition process where the army retains much of its power.
Among those present was State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s highest civil authority. In her remarks to Francis, she too avoided saying “Rohingya,” but acknowledged the crisis, speaking of the “situation in the Rakhine,” that has “captured the attention of the world.”
Rakhine State is the home of the 600,000 Rohingya Muslims who’ve fled Myanmar to Bangladesh.
“As we address long standing issues, social, economic and political, that have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation, between different communities in Rakhine, the support of our people and of good friends who only wish to see us succeed in our endeavors, has been invaluable,” she said.
The leader has been under pressure from some quarters within the international community to speak more forcefully about the situation.
The event took place in the country’s new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, during a meeting with the country’s authorities, members of civil society and the diplomats. Construction of the convention center where the pope spoke was financed by China, and completed in March 2010. The auditorium has a capacity of 1,900 people.
Before his remarks, the pope had private meetings with Myanmar’s democratically elected representatives in the presidential palace, built in 2005, when the decision to transfer the capital from Yangon was made. The building is within a complex of 31 similar buildings that constitutes the country’s ministerial area. The palace is surrounded by ample gardens.
In the palace, Francis had a private encounter with the country’s president, Htin Kyaw, and with Suu Kyi, who wields the actual authority as the leader of the National League for Democracy , the party that won the 2015 elections. Because she’s the widow of a foreigner, she’s constitutionally barred from being the country’s president. (The very specific provision was placed in the constitution by the previous military regime to keep Suu Kyi from holding the presidency.)
Opening his remarks Tuesday afternoon, Francis said that he was in the country to, “above all,” pray with the nation’s “small but fervent Catholic community, to confirm them in their faith, and to encourage them in their efforts to contribute to the good of the nation.”
Though he gave no numbers, there are an estimated 700,000 Catholics in this nation of some 52 million people, divided in 16 dioceses and with some 20 bishops.
Myanmar, a country that is predominantly Buddhist, has long been plagued by civil conflict arising from ethnic and racial divides. The ongoing crisis in Rakhine State is but the most prominent example of deeply ingrained discrimination against many of the country’s 135 minorities.
According to Francis, Myanmar’s religious communities have a “privileged role to play” in the process of national reconciliation. Religious differences, he argued, don’t need to be a source of “division and distrust,” but a “force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building.”
Religions can also have a key role in repairing the emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds resulting of years of conflict, and “drawing on deeply-held values,” they can also “help to uproot the causes of conflict, build bridges of dialogue, seek justice and be a prophetic voice for all who suffer.”
(Prior to flying to the capital, Francis had a private meeting with the country’s religious leaders, a late addition to the visit’s program. The list of guests included Buddhists, Muslims, Christians of different denominations and Hindus.)
In Tuesday’s speech, the pope praised as a “great sign of hope,” the fact that leaders of different religious traditions are “making efforts to work together,” to build peace, help the poor, and educate themselves “in authentic religious and human values.
“In seeking to build a culture of encounter and solidarity, they contribute to the common good and to laying the indispensable moral foundations for a future of hope and prosperity for coming generations,” Francis said.
Speaking about Myanmar’s future, the pope said it’s in the hands of the youth, “a gift to be cherished and encouraged, an investment that will yield a rich return if only they are given real opportunities for employment and quality education.”
Investing in the youth, Francis said, is an “urgent requirement of intergenerational justice,” and the future of Myanmar in a rapidly changing world will depend on their training, “not only in technical fields, but above all in the ethical values of honesty, integrity and human solidarity that can ensure the consolidation of democracy and the growth of unity and peace at every level of society.”
The meeting with the general
Making an unexpected change in his program, Francis met with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing upon arrival in Yangon on Monday. The meeting was at odds with the usual protocol, according to which the pontiff first meets with the civil authorities when visiting a democratic country.
The meeting, originally scheduled for Nov. 30, the last day of his visit, was already a last-minute addition to the program.
Since it was a “private” meeting, the Vatican refrained from giving details of the encounter, with spokesman Greg Burke simply saying that the two had spoken about “the great responsibility authorities in the country have at this moment of transition.” Afterwards, the two exchanged gifts, with the pope presenting the general with a medal commemorating the visit.
However, the head of the armed forces released a statement on Facebook after the meeting welcoming the pope and stating that there’s no “religious oppression or discrimination” and “no ethnic discrimination” in the country.
He also claimed that there’s freedom of religion, something human rights watch groups from around the world would challenge, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which issued two reports on Myanmar last year: One, focusing on the situation of the Rohingya and a second one titled “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.”
After his speech at the Convention Center, Francis was scheduled to go back to Yangon. On Wednesday, he will say Mass for thousands at the Kyaikkasan Ground, as well as meet the Buddhist Sangha Supreme Council and also the country’s Catholic bishops.