Pope Francis has taken some heat during his recent trip to Myanmar/Burma for not using the word “Rohingya” in his speeches.
I don’t pretend to be well informed about the situation, but the Myanmar government has been criticized for their treatment of the Rohingya Muslims living in the Rakhine state of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have left Myanmar and taken refuge in Bangladesh, fleeing military repression. The United States and others have accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing. Myanmar is ostensibly led by Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured above with Pope Francis), who holds the position of First State Counsellor, equivalent to Prime Minister. Suu Kyi is a former activist for democracy in Myanmar against military dictatorship and was held under house arrest as a political prisoner for fifteen years in her own country. She won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, while still under house arrest, for her commitment to democracy and human rights in Myanmar. Many claim, however, that the military are the real rulers of Myanmar. Suu Kyi has been harshly criticized by many human rights activists for remaining silent on the atrocities against the Rohingya, or for trying to paint a picture that the Rohingya are just as responsible for the violence in the Rakhine state as is the military.
The Myanmar government does not recognize the Muslims of Rakhine as an ethnic minority or, for that matter, as citizens of Myanmar at all. Instead, they regard them as intruders in the predominantly Buddhist country, though they’ve been there for generations. The Muslims of Rakhine call themselves Rohingya, but the Myanmar government refuses to use that word, officially designating them as “Bengali” because Bangladesh is their ancestral home. As such, the word carries a great deal of political and social baggage. There was a good bit of speculation, then, on whether or not Pope Francis would use the term “Rohingya” while in Myanmar.
In the minds of some, Pope Francis’ use of the word in Myanmar would have signaled his willingness to side with the oppressed against a repressive government. In the minds of still others, Francis’ use of the term would have been regarded as meddling in the internal matters of a sovereign nation and caused unnecessary tensions and closed doors, while subjecting the very tiny Christian community in Myanmar to governmental pressures. The lone cardinal in Myanmar asked Francis not to use the word. In the end, Francis chose to, in his words, keep the doors open for dialogue by not using the word Rohingya in Myanmar itself, but employing it in statements and prayers prior to the trip. As well, after leaving Myanmar, Pope Francis visited Bangladesh, where he used the word and met with Rohingya refugees.
What is the balance in such matters? Of course, I cannot criticize Pope Francis for not doing what he genuinely believed would cause unnecessary troubles. There is no point in stirring the pot when the most one is going to accomplish is international virtue signaling. Francis has hardly been one to keep his mouth shut when he feels something needs to be said. So I trust him when he says he did what he did and said what he said, or didn’t say, based on what he believed was possible, being willing to work with the world as it is rather than as he wishes it were. Honestly, does anyone question where this pope stands on human rights? Anyone who does hasn’t been paying attention. And that includes the military and civilian leaders of Myanmar.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.