The visit of Pope Francis I to Myanmar has allowed the pontiff to shine a light on that nation’s actions that resulted in more than 600,000 Rohingya fleeing Rakhine state and the deaths of many thousands of the Muslim-minority ethnic group. Pope Francis, like the United Nations and a host of international leaders, has expressed support for the persecuted people, referring to them on two occasions as “our Rohingya brothers and sisters”. Even the very mention of the word “Rohingya” poses a difficulty for the visiting head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics while in Myanmar, with authorities from that divided and troubled nation.
The visit of Pope Francis was planned long in advance of the horrific events of this summer, when widespread violence against the Rohingya — a pogrom that was aided and abetted by Myanmar’s security forces and military — forced the Rohingya out of their towns and villages, away from their burnt-out businesses and mosques, and to flee across the border over fields of freshly laid landmines. This purge was but the most serious in a long series of violent chapters against the Rohingya over the past five years. The only crime levelled against the Rohingya is that they are Muslim and don’t belong to the Buddhist-majority state.
Myanmar’s treatment and absolute contempt of the Rohingya, the actions of the nation’s military and security forces, and the complete disregard of the sanctity of human life among ordinary Myanmarese in terrorising the Rohingya, is a dark stain on the nation — one that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, as the counsellor in chief, must share blame for. Her failure to speak out against the abuses, to rein in those who act in hatred against the Rohingya, and her abrogation of her moral duties and leadership in protecting the religious minority makes her a willing accomplice to those who laid landmines, pulled triggers on or waved clubs against mothers and children. Oxford University, her former alma mater, has now rescinded an honorary degree awarded to Suu Kyi, over her failure to protect the most vulnerable in her state. It is a course of action that others should follow, with Suu Kyi’s inactions speaking far louder than her words of silence.
While Bangladesh has signed a deal for the return of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, it is a deal that is worthless, given that the leadership in Myanmar has created and inflamed this crisis in the first place. Pope Francis’ visit does at least show the government there that the world is watching.