General Min Aung Hlaing, commander of the Myanmar armed forces, inspects troops during a ceremony to mark the 71st Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2016. He is scheduled to meet the pope Nov. 30.
(Photo Ye Aung Thu/ AFP)
In a move sure to stir controversy, Pope Francis will hold a private meeting with Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing at Cardinal Charles Maung Bo's residence in Yangon.
No time has been specified for the Nov. 30 meeting, one of the major changes by the Vatican to the pope's scheduled visit to Myanmar.
The move came after Cardinal Bo suggested three issues during a private audience with the pope in Rome on Nov. 18: to meet with the military chief, to meet with interfaith leaders and to avoid use of the term 'Rohingya.'
Father Mariano Soe Naing, spokesperson for the pope's visit to Myanmar, said the meeting with the military leader was not included in the official program as it was not in line with diplomatic protocol.
"I think the military chief will want to meet with the pope, so the decision depends on the pope. If he (the pope) agreed to meet, no one can hinder him despite it being against protocol," Father Soe Naing told ucanews.com on Nov. 20.
Vatican Radio quoted Cardinal Bo on Nov. 18, saying "the aim for meeting with the military chief is not to promote what he (the general) has done, but to have a dialogue with him. Perhaps he could soften his heart and that could be the first step for peace."
More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25 following military clearance operations in conflict-torn Rakhine State after attacks on security posts. The Untied Nations termed it "ethnic cleansing."
The military in Myanmar has been harshly criticized by the international community for their bloody campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Zaw Htay, Myanmar government spokesman, said both the Vatican and Myanmar have agreed on the schedule of the visit, so he cannot comment on the pope's meetings with the military leader and interfaith leaders. Myanmar's military is yet to comment on the Nov. 30 meeting.
Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Rohingya party based in Yangon, said he sees the meeting between the pope and the general as a positive move as the military is a key player in Myanmar politics.
"I hope the pope will raise issues about peace as he has a strong desire for peace and the meeting could be a step forward towards peace and reconciliation," Kyaw Min told ucanews.com.
The Rohingya politician also said it was good that the pope would meet with Rohingya refugees in Dhaka. "The pope will have a chance listening to the stories of people and their suffering when he encounters them at a first-hand meeting," he said.
Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, agreed the pope should meet not only civilian leaders but also the military as Myanmar is going through a transition period to proper democracy.
"Pope Francis could raise Rakhine and human rights issues as a religious leader and he could convince the military leader about the important issues of peace and justice," Khin Zaw Win told ucanews.com.
The United States declared on Nov. 22 that the brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that "the key test of any democracy is how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized populations, such as the ethnic Rohingya and other minority populations."
"Burma's government and security forces must respect the human rights of all persons within its borders, and hold accountable those who fail to do so," Tillerson added.
A contentious issue during the pope's visit will be the use of the term "Rohingya" which Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has discouraged world leaders from using, arguing it could inflame tensions.
Cardinal Bo has advised the pope not to use the word Rohingya while in Myanmar because it is potentially incendiary as they are not recognized as an ethnic group.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in announcing changes to the Myanmar visit Nov. 22 that the pope took the advice seriously but added: "We will find out together during the trip ... it is not a forbidden word."