The 80-year-old pope, the first to travel to Myanmar, immediately dove into the Rohingya Muslim crisis by meeting Monday evening with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and three officials from the bureau of special operations. The general is in charge of the security operations in Rakhine state, where a military crackdown against the Muslim minority has sent more than 620,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, AP reported.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke didn’t provide details of the private, 15-minute meeting at the archbishop’s residence, other than to say that “they spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”
Rohingya in recent months have been subject to what the United Nations says is a campaign of “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the military in Rakhine.
The pope's speeches will be scrutinized by Buddhist hardliners for any mention of the word "Rohingya", an incendiary term in a country where the Muslim group are reviled and labeled "Bengalis" – alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Francis, though, has already prayed for “our Rohingya brothers and sisters,” and any decision to avoid the term could be viewed as a capitulation to Myanmar’s military and a stain on his legacy of standing up for the most oppressed and marginalized of society, no matter how impolitic.
Burke didn’t say if Francis used the term in his meeting with the general, which ended with an exchange of gifts: Francis gave him a medallion of the trip, while the general gave the pope a harp in the shape of a boat, and an ornate rice bowl.
On Tuesday, Francis begins the main protocol portion of his weeklong trip, meeting with the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and delivering a speech to other Myanmar authorities and diplomats. He’ll greet a delegation of Rohingya Muslims and meet with Bangladesh’s political and religious leadership in Dhaka.
The trip was planned before the latest spasm of violence erupted in August that forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, where they are living in squalid refugee camps.
In the Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, Senu Ara, 35, welcomed Francis’ arrival for what he might be able to do for the refugees.
“He might help us get the peace that we are desperately searching for,” she said. “Even if we stay here he will make our situation better. If he decides to send us back, he will do so in a peaceful way.”
But in Yangon, the sentiment was different. Myanmar’s government and most of the Buddhist majority consider them Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country, though Rohingya have lived there for generations.