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Pope Francis and The Lady meet again

It would not have been 'courageous or wise' to raise the Rohingya issue, stir the pot, and leave local Catholics to deal with the fallout

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Pope Francis and The Lady meet again

Pope Francis and Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi stand during an event in Nay Pyi Daw on Nov. 28. Pope Francis called for respect for rights and justice in a keenly-watched address in Myanmar but refrained from any mention of the Rohingya. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu) 

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The much-anticipated second meeting between Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi, following a get together in Rome in May, has probably disappointed those who expected it to focus on the Rohingya crisis.

Both speeches — the first by the State Counselor welcoming the pope and then his response — were long on what Myanmar needs to do to progress as a new democracy and short on any specifics about the country's manifold problems. Most notably, the issue that has captured the attention of many and horrified most — the 620,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape the brutality of Myanmar's military  ­— was not mentioned.

However, there were plenty of coded messages in both speeches to decipher that both speakers acknowledged what a savage and dismaying mess the country is in. There was even the specific reference by Suu Kyi to the unresolved "outstanding problems in Rakhine State."

But that was about as close as either party could be expected to get to tackling the issue in their short addresses. Suu Kyi’s speech was hardly different to the one she gave to the diplomatic corps on Sept. 19, 2017. She recognized the need for an inclusive approach to nation-building, respect for national and religious minorities and added that a stable future was one based on the rule of law.

The pope delivered a list of basic requirements if a society is to prosper: respect for diversity, inclusion of all groups in national processes and emphasis on education and skill training for the young. The last one should resonant with Myanmar's young population.

While the more diplomatically astute might argue that's as far as both would or could go, the question remains as to why the word Rohingya wasn’t uttered.


Firstly, Suu Kyi is constrained by some basic facts: she doesn’t really run Myanmar and never will as long as its 2008 Constitution is in place; she has absolutely no control over the national army and border force that has been purging the Rohingya and she probably found out only after it began through the media.

Moreover, she is aware that the majority of people in her country believe Buddhist culture underpins the nation which is at risk of being overrun by Muslims and Islamic extremists. As mad as it sounds, this is a widely held fear in Myanmar that is inflamed by extremist Buddhist monks and is one of the reasons why the Rohingya are so loathed.

Several factors influenced how much Pope Francis could actually say.

It is preposterous to suggest that the pope could have addressed the Rohingya crisis in the capital of Myanmar on his first visit to the country. He is the head of state of another country invited to Myanmar by its President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Moreover, he is the leader of a religious community that accounts for a little over 1 percent of the national population, parts of which, have received similar treatment from the military in the country’s north and east. Tens of thousands of Catholics are among the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Myanmar — rendered so by the unresolved civil wars and abusive treatment by the military.

The sight of Pope Francis at the barricades is a serious misreading of what he can and should do while he's here. Stirring up the local scene and fleeing within 48 hours to leave local Catholics to take the beating is neither courageous nor wise. An even worse result would be triggering broader sectarian violence across the country, a very real threat that human rights groups urging him to directly address the Rohingya issue conveniently ignore.

But Pope Francis, unlike Suu Kyi, has a second chance when he flies to Bangladesh on the second leg of this draining trip to two of Asia’s poorest nations. The master of the telling symbolic act, Pope Francis can then show more in deed than word when he meets Rohingya refugees in Dhaka.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of and based in Thailand.

#popeheartofasia #PopeFrancis

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