NAYPYIDAW: Pope Francis called for respect for rights and justice in a keenly-watched address in Myanmar on Tuesday, but refrained from any mention of the Rohingya, or allegations of ethnic cleansing that has driven huge numbers of the Muslim minority from the country.
Sharing a stage with Myanmar´s leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw, he did not address the Rohingya crisis head-on, instead tip-toeing around the unfolding humanitarian emergency.
Peace can only be achieved through “justice and a respect for human rights”, he said in a broadly-framed speech that also called for “respect for each ethnic group and its identity”.
The word “Rohingya”, an incendiary term in a mainly Buddhist country where the Muslim minority are denied citizenship and branded illegal “Bengali” immigrants, was entirely absent from his speech.
Francis has repeatedly defended the group, some 620,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since August. Rights groups had urged him to tackle Myanmar on its treatment of the minority during his four-day visit.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been ostracised by a global rights community that once adored her but is now outraged at her tepid response to the plight of the Rohingya.
She spoke of the challenges her country faces as it creeps out of the shadow of five decades of military rule, but also did not reference the Rohingya.
Myanmar´s government aimed to build the nation by “protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all”, she said in a short speech, that gave a nod to global concern over the “situation in the Rakhine.”
The pope´s peace mission is studded with pitfalls in Myanmar, where a monk-led Buddhist nationalist movement has fostered widespread loathing for the Rohingya.
The Pope, The Lady and a General
Late on Monday the 80-year-old pontiff received a “courtesy visit” from Myanmar´s powerful army chief — whose troops, according to the UN and US, have waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has firmly denied allegations of widespread brutality by his forces, despite the flight of hundreds of thousands of people who have recounted widespread cases of rape, murder and arson.
His office said he told the pope there was “no discrimination” in Myanmar, and feted his military for maintaining “the peace and stability of the country”.
Early Tuesday the pontiff met leaders from Buddhist, Muslim, Baptist and Jewish faiths in Yangon.
The conversation centred around themes of unity and diversity, with the pope sharing a prayer and giving a “very, very beautiful speech”, according to Sammy Samuels, a representative from the small Jewish community.
The Lady, as she is fondly known in Myanmar, finally came to power after elections in 2015 but has fallen from grace internationally for not doing more to stand up to the army in defence of the Rohingya — whose name she will not publicly utter.
Rights groups have clamoured for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her peace prize. Oxford, the English city she once called home, on Monday removed her Freedom of the City award for her “inaction” in the face of oppression of the Rohingya.
Just days before the papal visit, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal to start repatriating Rohingya refugees within two months.
But details of the agreement — including the use of temporary shelters for returnees, many of whose homes have been burned to the ground — raise questions for Rohingya fearful of returning without guarantees of basic rights.
Francis will travel on to Bangladesh on Thursday.
So far, the pontiff has received a warm welcome in Myanmar, whose Catholic community numbers just over one percent of the country´s 51 million people.
But some 200,000 Catholics are pouring into the commercial capital Yangon from all corners of the country ahead of a huge, open-air mass on Wednesday morning.
Zaw Sai, 52, from Kachin state, found space for himself and his family to camp out in a churchyard.
“We feel very pleased because we are from different ethnicities but are one in our religion,” he told AFP.