Trip to Myanmar may be pope’s ‘most diplomatically sensitive’

By By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A woman from Myanmar feeds her child in a U.N. clinic for severely malnourished Rohingya children Oct. 28 in the Balukhali Refugee Camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled government-sanctioned violence in Myanmar for safety in Bangladesh. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

VATICAN CITY — As we go to press with this issue of Chicago Catholic, Pope Francis is preparing to visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. He will become the first pope to visit the country formerly known as Burma, which, after decades of authoritarian rule, is opening up to outsiders as it takes tentative steps toward democracy under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

This also is likely to be the pope’s most diplomatically sensitive trip. In Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been driven out, beaten and killed in what the United Nations has called a “textbook case” of ethnic cleansing.

Francis has spoken out a number of times for the Rohingya but is now being warned by the church on the ground not to mention the group by name.

“It would be very contested if the pope was to use the word ‘Rohingya,’” Cardinal Bo told me in Rome last week. “The word is not accepted by the government, the military, the Buddhist community.” The cardinal, who is Myanmar’s first prelate to receive a red hat, suggested he could use the phrase “the Muslims of Rakhine state” instead.

Cardinal Bo said that if Francis does mention the “R-word” then he risks sparking protests and potentially putting the church on the ground at risk. Catholics number around 700,000 in the country and exist peacefully alongside the other groups inside the Buddhist-majority country. They, according to the cardinal, want to play a part in nation building focusing on peace, defending ethnic groups, the role of women, integral development and education.

In 1965, 100 Catholic schools were nationalized and the church would like them be returned. There is a diplomatic balance to be struck between speaking out and avoiding causing harm.

This is not, however, the first trip during which a word used by the pope could cause controversy. During a trip to Armenia last year, Francis used the word “genocide” to describe the mass slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the beginning of the 20th century. He did so even though it wasn’t included in a prepared speech doing the visit.

In the case of Myanmar, tensions are running high, and it is a live, rather than historical, situation. The atrocities committed against the Rohingya, Cardinal Bo pointed out, came after attacks on 30 police stations by Muslim militants in the Rakhine state, but Cardinal Bo also criticized the violence used by the military, which had responded by “burning villages.” To put it bluntly, there is a fear of Islamic militancy that has been fueled by some hardline Buddhist figures.

It has also meant the tarnishing of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s reputation as an icon of democracy. She has been heavily criticized for not speaking out, although commentators note that the country’s military, which for decades governed Myanmar, still holds much of the power and her hands have been tied.

Myanmar’s cardinal defended her, saying the West has been too quick to judge her and that the transition to democracy rests heavily on Suu Kyi’s shoulders.

She will meet the pope for the second time during the trip, the first being in the Vatican when the Holy See and Myanmar announced full diplomatic relations. This was an important diplomatic coup, given that Myanmar borders China, a country the Vatican is working with to try to re-establish formal ties.

While it is not clear whether any breakthrough is in sight, the Vatican and China are planning to hold joint art exhibitions: one in the Vatican Museums and another in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

China broke official ties with the Vatican in 1951, and since then every pope has tried to rebuild the relationship. Diplomatic sources argue that a deal between the Holy See and China is a “win-win” for both sides, with China the historic center for Eastern civilization and the Holy See the oldest Western institution.
Both the potential deal with China and a papal visit to Myanmar underline the soft-power influence of the Holy See. This is not shown through financial or militaristic means but demonstrated through the moral voice of the papacy and its global networks.

The Vatican has always been seen as a listening post by diplomats. It is a regular occurrence for the Holy See to host major international gatherings, something that has ramped up under Pope Francis. Earlier this month, for example, 11 Nobel Peace Prize winners along with NATO and United Nations officials took part in a nuclear-disarmament conference, while, days before, in a villa designed by Pope Pius IV in the Vatican gardens, judges, prosecutors and financial experts discussed ways to prevent human trafficking.

Whatever people may feel about the Vatican, it is still able to convene global leaders to discuss the big questions on policy and culture.


  • pope francis
  • myanmar

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