by Josephine Moysey
From November 27th to 30th, 2017, Pope Francis visited Myanmar, the country I’ve called home for the last three years. There was much speculation before he arrived: would he say the word “Rohingya” or not? It’s not as simple decision as it might initially seem. Within Myanmar, the term “Rohingya” is perceived as somewhat inflammatory; the Rohingya themselves are seen as being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many refer to them as “Bengali”. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi refers to them as “the Muslim community in Rakhine State”. A common opinion heard and shared among people within the Burmese Buddhist community is one of condemnation of the Pontiff, though this is not the official line. They have accused him of only supporting Muslims and not understanding or respecting the Buddhist community here. They say that even his very presence at this time shows that he is a Muslim sympathiser.
On the other hand, human rights groups urged the Pope to use the term “Rohingya”. They claimed the Pope needed to validate this identity and use the term as a show of support. Ultimately, Pope Francis did not use the term “Rohingya” whilst he was here. What was his reasoning for this?
An article in The Guardian speculated that he only “protects his own”. That particular Guardian article contained several factual errors on other aspects. However, there is an element of truth to the statement: ultimately though, it isn’t entirely about self preservation, rather the “preservation” of people who are already persecuted. The Rohingya, sadly, are not the only persecuted group in Myanmar.
Pope Francis was told by the Catholic hierarchy in Myanmar that if he used that term, it could risk making things worse for the Catholic minority living here. This is a very real issue for the Catholic communities in Kayah, Karen, and Kachin States. Many are already displaced because of conflict and are discriminated against because of their religion. Thousands of people from these regions had come to Yangon to see him, making journeys of two days, living in camps at local churches. Many are living in IDP camps back in their local areas. There are tales from Kachin state, in Myanmar’s far north of random murders and rapes by the Myanmar army to locals. Travel within these regions is heavily restricted to foreigners and considered out of bounds to most Myanmar people, given both the remoteness of the region and the conflict taking place.
Western media has in recent months focused on the Rohingya issue, and Pope Francis made it abundantly clear during his speech in Naypyidaw that all ethnic groups should be allowed to live in peace, adding, after a pause “no exceptions”. During his visit, he also mentioned conflicts that aren’t covered at all in western media, such as those in Kachin and Shan State in northern Myanmar. By now, most people reading or viewing mainstream western news have heard about the Rohingya. However, articles and news about conflict in Kachin, Kayah and Karen States are rare. I’ve personally encountered a small number of western journalists trying to report on this, especially the conflict in the very north of Kachin, which have often been met with a refusal to publish in western media, particularly in the build up to the 2015 elections. This was thought to be largely because many of the local ethnic Kachin north of Myitkyina do not support Aung San Suu Kyi and the western press did not want to focus on her and the NLD’s lack of popularity among the ethnic population of Kachin and surrounding regions. At his mass on November 28th, 2017 at Kyaik Kasan Ground in Yangon, the pontiff directly made mention of these conflicts and had representatives from these communities speak in their local language. The power of this gesture is immense.
Additionally, The Pope has been publicly saying the word ‘Rohingya’ for a very long time in the context of their suffering. Long, long before this latest round of violence and definitely much longer before the average western politician or journalist. He has referred to the Rohingya as his “brothers and sisters”.
At the end of his visit, he left and visited some refugee camps in Bangladesh. So, while he’s not using the particular term “Rohingya”, he’s definitely openly supportive of them in very constructive ways – and additionally, all the others here that are victims of conflict in Myanmar.
It’s easy to make judgements on someone from the comfort of one’s safe office space. It’s easy to not fully understand the cultural context that someone else may be operating within and make assumptions on their actions based on that. However, the Pope has acted with dignity, tact, and compassion, showing consideration for others during his visit to Myanmar. He may not have used a particular word, but his actions show that he stands with them – and others like them – completely.
Featured image via Reuters
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