Rohingya refugees have only faint hopes over Pope Francis' visit

Vast majority of the Muslim group are largely unaware of the visit, those that do fear nothing will change in Myanmar
Rohingya refugees have only faint hopes over Pope Francis' visit

Rohingya refugees cross the border into Bangladesh at Shah Porir Dwip Island, Cox's Bazar on Sept. 13. ( photo)

Noor Hashem looks weak and worried as he waits behind queues of fellow Rohingya to see a doctor for his kidney problems at a clinic run by international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh.

The doctor advised him to go to a better-equipped hospital in the district town for more specialized treatment.

Hashem, 35, a Rohingya Muslim and high school teacher from Maungdaw in Rakhine State of Myanmar, fled to Bangladesh with his wife and two daughters when the Myanmar military launched its latest crackdown on the Rohingya.

The retaliatory violence to Aug. 25 attacks on 30 security check posts by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army saw over 1,000 Rohingya dead, dozens of houses burned and women raped, which rights groups and the U.N. have dubbed "ethnic cleansing," forcing over 420,000 Rohingya to cross the border into Bangladesh for safety.

"I didn't realize such atrocities would be carried out against the Rohingya. There was a military build-up in Maungdaw for weeks, with men being arrested and tortured. I sensed something bad, so I decided to flee before things got worse," Hashem told 

Sign up to receive UCAN Daily Full Bulletin
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
With a bit of optimism as well as hopelessness he nodded when asked about his reaction to Pope Francis's visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh at the end of the year.

"Pope Francis is a global icon of peace and harmony, and I know he is coming with a message of peace. I hope that his trip will have a positive impact for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, but it won't help in Myanmar," Hashem said.   

Less than five percent of the Rohingya know about the pope, because many are illiterate and they have been cut off from outer world by the military and Buddhist extremists, he said.

"The pope has spoken out against the plight of the Rohingya and appealed for their recognition and rights. But Myanmar won't listen to him, because the government, the military and Buddhist radicals don't want peace and harmony, only oppression and persecution," he added.

More Rohingya refugees who have fled Rakhine State to Bangladesh at Shah Porir Dwip Island, Cox’s Bazar on Sept. 13. ( photo)


Osman Gani, 37 fled to Bangladesh from Buthidaung after soldiers set his house alight two weeks ago.

Along with his two brothers and a sister, they carried his elderly parents on their shoulders followed by a three-day journey by foot and boat.

A father of two sons and a daughter, Osman does not know what has happened to his three remaining brothers.

He doubted whether the pope's visit could bring a lasting solution for the Rohingya.

"The pope is a humanist, and he has worked for peace in various countries. Yet, I have doubts whether he can make any difference in Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya as the government, military and Buddhists have no sympathy for them," Osman told

Syed Alam, the imam of a mosque at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, said he is optimistic about the pope's visit.

"First of all, it is a positive sign that the pope will visit Myanmar and Bangladesh and like many of the Rohingya I would like to pin my hopes that an influential person like the pope might foster a peaceful solution for us," Alam told

However, he doubted whether Pope Francis could broker a change of fortune for the Rohingya as well as for other ethnic and religious minorities fighting for their rights in Myanmar.

"The government, the military and extremist Buddhists represent the Burmese (Bamar) who consider themselves superior than other communities. Unless their mindset changes, nothing will change even if the pope delivers strong messages," Alam added.

The Rohingya have lived in Arakan (now Rakhine State) years before the Burmese invasion and annexation of the former independent kingdom in the pre-British colonial period.

Yet, Myanmar doesn't recognize them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, instead considers them as 'Bengali,' infiltrators from Bangladesh. In 1982, a controversial citizenship law stripped citizenship from the Rohingya, making them officially stateless.

Decades of persecution by the military and extremist Rakhine Buddhists forced tens of thousands to flee to various countries, mostly to Bangladesh.

On several occasions, Pope Francis has spoken against treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

"They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,'' the pontiff said during a weekly audience at the Vatican in February this year.

On Aug. 27, just two days after troubles flared in Rakhine, Pope Francis called for an end to violence against the ethnic group.

"Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority. 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," Pope Francis said while speaking to pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square.

Even before the pope's first-ever trip to Myanmar was officially announced, contentions have brewed in the religiously and ethnically divided country, which has endured five decades of military rule.

Despite a landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in the 2015 elections, and the formation of a civilian government, Myanmar's military wields unrestrained power via the 2008 constitution it wrote which reserves 25 percent of parliament seats for the armed forces.

In addition, the military controls defense, home and border affairs ministries, handing generals absolute power over security matters, even with utter disregard to widespread human rights of civilians.

Myanmar's political and religious leaders have described Pope Francis' visit as a way to help end the country's troubles through peace building and reconciliation.

However, Buddhist nationalists led by extremist monks, who consider the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, have been enraged over the pope's sympathy to the stateless minority.        

Ashin Wirathu, an extremist monk in Mandalay, former royal capital of Myanmar, resented the pope's Rohingya statements and viewed his trip as a "political instigation."

"There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That's false," Wirathu said, echoing the similar view many Buddhists hold about the Rohingya.

Presumably under military pressure and dealing with political realities, the Catholic bishops of Myanmar have requested Pope Francis not to mention the term 'Rohingya' when he visits the country.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong, which covers Cox's Bazar, said that Pope Francis would do his best to tackle the Rohingya crisis.

"It is not just a political issue but a humanitarian one. Our pope is a humanist and a man of justice," Archbishop Costa told "A Nobel Peace Prize winner like Aung San Suu Kyi might avoid the Rohingya issue for political expediency, but Pope Francis will surely take on this issue and try to broker a solution," he said.

© Copyright 2019, All rights reserved
© Copyright 2019, Union of Catholic Asian News Limited. All rights reserved
Expect for any fair dealing permitted under the Hong Kong Copyright Ordinance.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without prior permission.