During Pope Francis’s late November visit to Myanmar, observers were focused on one specific detail. It wasn’t about who he met or what he wore. Rather, it was whether Pope Francis would say the word “Rohingya.”
To understand why the Pope faced a dilemma about whether to say this word, one must understand the political crisis currently underway in Myanmar. Since the 1970s, Myanmar (then called Burma) has been under military rule. For decades after, the junta abused the rights of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority concentrated in the western Rakhine state. Since Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist, the military faced little domestic criticism for their actions. Now, anti-Rohingya sentiment is ubiquitous throughout Myanmar. Most Myanmarese do not consider the Rohingya as citizens, which renders them stateless.
Although military rule ended in 2014, after which Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi took power in a de facto role, anti-Rohingya resentment remains today — and is now a full-scale humanitarian crisis. So far, approximately a million Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar. Although many escaped to neighboring Bangladesh, most Rohingya remain internally displaced. Yet, President Suu Kyi has done little to assuage the crisis and has denied its existence to the international community. Considering that Myanmar’s military maintains an enormous influence in the country’s government, Suu Kyi’s hands are tied. However, the international community has met her inaction with harsh criticism, causing the Pope’s visit to fall during a politically and diplomatically strained time.
For this reason, the Pope likely declined to saying “Rohingya” to avoid offending Myanmar’s government. Indeed, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar apparently requested beforehand that the Pope only mention the Rohingya in “a way that doesn’t hurt anybody.” Some have also made the argument that the Pope’s mentioning “Rohingya” could endanger Christians in the country. Since Christians constitute around 1% of Myanmar’s population, any mention of the Rohingya might encourage extremist Buddhists to attack the country’s Christian minority. Therefore, Pope Francis’s choice came down to diplomacy and concern for fellow Christians versus compromising his moral authority. Ultimately, he erred on the side of relative caution and neglected to acknowledge the Rohingya directly during an event with President Suu Kyi.
Obviously, the Pope’s choice was calculated. Greg Burke, a Vatican official speaking on the Pope’s behalf, claiming that the Pope’s visit was merely “about diplomatic relations.” But was the Pope’s decision to be “diplomatic” the right one? Morally, he, as the world’s most influential religious official, should ignore his relationships with political leaders and instead encourage view the events in Myanmar from a humanitarian standpoint. Furthermore, his decision to be mindful of a country that has engaged in essentially an ethnic cleansing sends the wrong message that he tolerates the actions of Myanmar’s government and military. On the other hand, speaking out the crisis could endanger Christians in Myanmar and potentially any of his future plans there. Clearly, both choices had negative outcomes.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s decision to ignore the word “Rohingya” painted him as a regular politician, who compromises values to maintain amicable relationships. Obviously, this image is the wrong one to project. He, as likely the world’s most recognized religious figure alive, must keep his papacy above the foray of international affairs. After all, if he desires to help others, he must do so irrespectful of difficulties he may face. Regardless of his intentions during the visit, however, the Pope still has the opportunity to revisit the Rohingya issue in the future. Hopefully, he will reevaluate the role of politics in how he addresses pressing humanitarian issues.