The much-ballyhooed papal tour of Myanmar and Bangladesh, which lasted from November 27 to December 2, ultimately ended with a call for solidarity and Pope Francis winning warm applause across the region despite diplomatic issues and grumbles from human rights groups over his use of the word “Rohingya.”
Throughout his trip, which was his 21st foreign visit outside of Italy, Pope Francis had to walk what many described as a diplomatic tightrope as he waded into the Rohingya crisis. But it was nonetheless a timely visit and one that raised global awareness of the Muslim exodus across Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh by the Rohingya, which is causing great concern around the world.
He waited until his arrival in Bangladesh before using the word “Rohingya,” and on a flight back to Rome, he was candid, telling journalists that: “Had I said that word [in Myanmar], I would have been slamming the door.”
In doing so, he was merely confirming a reality most would recognize: that no head of state, including the Pope, would have risked a major diplomatic incident by using the “Rohingya” word in Myanmar.
Still, it was hardly a ringing endorsement for the welcoming committee headed by State Counselor and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her military leaders.
The border near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh has also earned the attention of international security agencies, which view the area as the current regional hotspot, ripe for exploitation by Islamic militants after the siege of Marawi in the southern Philippines.
As one source in the intelligence community noted, “Both sides are playing at this with militant Buddhists and the army pushing all the wrong buttons in this crisis.” The current round of violence began with an August attack on police posts in northern Myanmar that resulted in a vicious military response and 650,000 people fleeing into Bangladesh.
The attacks on the police posts were blamed on a shadowy Rohingya insurgency group that calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Little is known about the group, even today.
As the military responded with an unnecessarily heavy hand and by venting its anger on women, children, and the elderly, Khaled Batarfi, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, urged Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia to make war against the authorities in Myanmar, and against what he described as the enemies of Allah.
This highly charged mix was further complicated by Rakhine Buddhists, who also fled civil wars in Rakhine and into Bangladesh over recent decades. They were rarely welcomed and began returning to Myanmar three years ago following calls to come home.
Analysts fear those returnees had contributed to the razing of villages, partly out of revenge and in return for land amid deals struck with the military.
“The Buddhists from Bangladesh are being resettled around Rakhine’s Rohingya villages to create more pressure on the local minority community,” Bangladesh-based Rohingya rights activist Khin Maung Lay told The Christian Science Monitor.
“Their men joined local Buddhists in some of the recent attacks — in which Rohingya villages were set ablaze. More Buddhists there means an increased threat of communal tension and violence against the Rohingyas because the Buddhists are now openly saying that they don’t want to see any Muslims around them.”
This was the diplomatic migraine confronting papal advisors on the eve of the tour.
It was also a situation made all the more difficult by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who backed UN findings when he labeled the violence as ethnic cleansing, although this was tempered by officials in both countries who announced a repatriation deal before the pontiff’s arrival.
Defining the exodus as ethnic cleansing was a breath of fresh air from a White House bogged down by presidential ineptitude. But repatriation promises to be a most difficult affair given Naypyidaw’s refusal to recognize the Rohingya, insisting they are illegal Bengalis.
Pope Francis, an intellectual and reformer, was aware of this before his arrival in Myanmar, where he paid due respect to the many who have suffered under the notorious iron fist of the military but he carefully avoided using the word Rohingya.
That upset human rights groups. But Pope Francis changed tack in Bangladesh, where he also thanked the authorities for their handling of the refugee crisis, which has been laced with stories of rape, torture, and murder.
The Pope left no doubt when he said: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
He met with groups of Rohingyas from squalid refugees camps: men, women, and children. A young girl told the pontiff how she had lost her entire family during an attack by the Myanmar army on her village before she fled with other survivors across the border earlier this year.
“Bangladeshi society has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees from Rakhine state, providing them with temporary shelter and the basic necessities of life. This has been done at no little sacrifice,” the Pope said.
The Pope added, “None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved.” And of his talks with military leaders in Myanmar he said: “It was a good conversation and the truth was non-negotiable.”
Observers said there were fears that a misplaced word could spark a backlash against Catholic minorities in both countries, a risk not worth taking with Suu Kyi and her military hanging off every word the pontiff had to say.
Catholics make up about 0.2 percent of the Bangladesh population, or about 350,000 people, compared with about 600,000 in Myanmar or about one percent of the population. These are small numbers overall, but as a potential target such numbers are not insignificant.
Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya has not escaped world attention, and indeed this papal tour could not have come at a better time in terms of where the issue currently sits. It passed off peacefully and ensured the eyes of the world will remain fixed on the plight of refugees in Cox’s Bazar for some time to come.
This was helped enormously by the Pope’s meetings with 16 Rohingya during an interfaith gathering in Dhaka, where he also made an emotional plea for forgiveness from those who have faced the storm of ethnic cleansing and the atrocious treatment that came with it.
“In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness… I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek,” he said.
It was a big ask.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt