I heard about Pope Francis’ visit to Burma before it was announced – from the Holy Father himself. On Sunday I was at the Vatican to hear the Pope’s appeal for an end to violence against the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Burma facing severe persecution. Referring to them as “our Rohingya brothers and sisters”, Francis expressed his “full closeness to them”. He encouraged us all to “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”.
Moments later he entered the Salle Clementine where, along with about 200 others, I had the great privilege of meeting him in a private audience. When I approached him, I told him that I had become a Catholic in Burma four years ago, and work closely with Burma’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo. I said I was so happy to hear that he might be visiting Burma. The Pope interrupted me – “I will visit. It is confirmed.” Yesterday, the official announcement was made.
As I thanked the Pope and moved on, conscious of the line behind me, he pulled me back and said in English: “Please give my greetings to Cardinal Bo.” He looked straight into my eyes with an intensity that spoke volumes about his concern for Burma.
Francis will be the first Pope ever to visit the country. It follows a series of landmark events for the Church in the past three years – from the celebration of 500 years of Catholicism in Burma, the beatification of Burma’s first Blessed, Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, the appointment of Burma’s first cardinal and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Burma.
His visit will also be almost exactly two years after Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly won the country’s first credible elections in a quarter of a century, and a democratic transition began. Yet two years on the situation is incredibly fragile.
With a military still politically dominant and continuing to inflict grave human rights violations on civilians in parts of Burma, progress towards genuine peace and democracy has stalled. Indeed in some areas – notably Rakhine state in western Burma and Kachin and northern Shan states in northern Burma – a humanitarian crisis caused by military offensives has escalated dramatically. Hundreds of thousands are internally displaced; thousands more have tried to flee across borders and by boat at sea. International experts talk of war crimes and crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and potential genocide.
At the same time religious intolerance is reaching boiling point. A militant Buddhist nationalism has arisen that has led to campaigns of hate speech and violence against Muslims in other parts of the country, and to some extent pressure on Christians too.
In this context, Pope Francis has chosen to stand in solidarity with the marginalised and persecuted, and has sent a vital message about human dignity, religious freedom and inter-religious harmony for all. I salute him. As ever, there is a risk: a backlash from the Burmese government, military and Buddhist nationalists. The situation is all the more volatile because of the recent emergence of militant Rohingya groups, who may have links to Islamist groups elsewhere. They do not represent the Rohingya population as a whole, but their violent attacks on Burmese military and police have been met with completely disproportionate and unjustified mass violence by the Burma army, burning down villages and displacing civilians. The Pope is absolutely right to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya. But order to begin to influence hearts and minds among the Burmese population, he should be clear in condemning the attacks by the Rohingya armed group too.
Ten years ago I asked Rohingya friends whether they had concerns about the risk of radical Islamism, a phenomenon that was not a significant presence in Burma in the past. These gentle, moderate refugees – who only wanted their people to live in harmony with others in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Burma – looked into my eyes with sadness. “We are afraid,” they said, “that if our people continue to be so oppressed and persecuted, if no one speaks out for them, if the government and people of Burma continue to marginalise us, if our people feel we have no friends in the world, then yes, they are vulnerable to radicalisation.”
The best way to fight radicalisation is to address the Rohingyas’ plight. A good start would be to implement the recommendations of a recent commission established by Aung San Suu Kyi and chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The Rohingyas are not the only vulnerable minority in Burma. I hope the Pope will also speak out for the Kachin, the Shan and others who are displaced by conflict and enduring grave abuses at the hands of the army. Pope Francis’ visit has the potential to speak truth to power, to advance peace, justice and reconciliation, and to bring peoples of different religious and ethnic communities in Burma together. Its importance should not be underestimated.
Benedict Rogers is the author of three books on Burma, including ‘From Burma to Rome’, and is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.