There was no way that Pope Francis’s trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh last week was going to be uneventful. The trip came in the midst of a massive spasm of violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State—one that the UN’s human rights chief, many rights organizations, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have all called ethnic cleansing. The pope has built a reputation as a defender of the poor, of the powerless, and of refugees and migrants, and so it seemed natural that, in Myanmar and Bangladesh, he would speak out on behalf of the Rohingya. Not only have over 600,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh since August, but conditions in the refugee camps inside Bangladesh are increasingly dire. In a recent report by the Inter-Sector Coordination Group on conditions inside Bangladesh for the Rohingya refugees, it noted that:
One of the camps [where Rohingya are living] has become the largest and fastest growing refugee camp in the world, where approximately half a million people are living extremely close to each other without access to basic services such as toilets or clinics.
The pope also reportedly was pressured, before the trip, by Catholic leaders in Myanmar not to openly criticize the Myanmar government’s handling of Rakhine State or even use the word Rohingya. They may have done so for fear that, if the pope did criticize the country’s military and civilian leaders for their roles in the ethnic cleansing, Catholics in Myanmar would be targeted for violence because of the pope’s words. In addition, some Catholic leaders may have feared that anything the pope did to upset Myanmar leaders could threaten relations between the Vatican and Naypyidaw; the two sides only established diplomatic relations last May. Pope Francis is politically savvy, but this was always going to be a very delicate trip.
Pope Francis ultimately did not issue any open criticism of the Myanmar government, or even use the word Rohingya, until he had left Myanmar for Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees and discuss the crisis with Bangladesh leaders. (Myanmar military and civilian leaders refuse to even use the word “Rohingya,” as a means of denying the existence of targeting the Rohingya as supposed outsiders in Myanmar.) Amidst international criticism, the pope then defended his approach to the trip on his way back to Rome and suggested to reporters that he was frank in private with Myanmar leaders about the nature of the Rakhine crisis and their responsibility for it. He further suggested to some reporters that he did indeed use the word Rohingya in private discussions with Myanmar leaders.
He may well have been frank in private. Surely, in dealing with civilian, military, and even some religious leaders in Myanmar, the pope must have faced the biggest obstacle all foreign leaders, rights activists, and diplomats address in addressing the Rakhine crisis: the vast majority of Myanmar people either seem to support the government’s approach to Rakhine or are untroubled by it. This is not a reason for outsiders, including the pope, to avoid criticism of Myanmar for the crisis in Rakhine or sanctions for leaders abetting ethnic cleansing. But, the fact that a majority of Myanmar citizens seem to support the brutal campaign that has driven as much as two-thirds of the Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh means that outsiders’ words and actions seem to be pushing most Myanmar leaders and citizens into a bunker mentality. Increasingly, Myanmar citizens seem to be supporting the Myanmar military, no matter how abusively it acts in Rakhine State.
Many Rohingya already seem to accept that they have been ethnically cleansed, and have no future in Myanmar, even if Naypyidaw and Dhaka eventually forge some real agreement on repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar. (Dhaka and Naypyidaw reportedly have agreed on a memorandum of understanding about some kind of repatriation, but it is hard to imagine repatriation going forward while conditions for Rohingya inside Rakhine State are still so dire.) “The Rohingya are finished in our country,” Kyaw Min, a Rohingya man living in Yangon, told the New York Times in a story published over the weekend. “Soon we will all be dead or gone.”
In addition, although Pope Francis has said that he is a strong supporter of Myanmar’s democratic transition—and there is no reason to doubt that he indeed supports the transition—his decision to go along with commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing’s demand that the pontiff meet the top general before meeting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is not helpful to the democratic process. (In the meeting, the general reportedly told the pope that there is “no religious discrimination” in Myanmar.) Min Aung Hlaing already has been bolstering his power, and the military’s popularity, through a series of high-profile visits to foreign countries and through the brutal campaign in Rakhine State. Getting the pope to meet him first sends another signal to the Myanmar populace that Min Aung Hlaing wields the power in Myanmar, and that foreign leaders should treat him as the country’s real ruler.
To be sure, on his return to Rome, the pope indicated to reporters that he did not see his meeting with the top Myanmar general as akin to his meeting with de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he had sought out and who he actually wanted to meet. In response to a question on his plane about his meeting with the top general, the pope noted:
I would distinguish between the two meetings, two types of meetings. Those meetings during which I went to meet people [i.e, with Suu Kyi] and those in which I received people. This general asked me to speak. And I received him. I never close the door.
Yet, few people in Myanmar will have read this press conference transcript, while many will have read or heard about Pope Francis meeting with Min Aung Hlaing and then, only later, with Aung San Suu Kyi.
The pope was his usual forthright self again with Rohingya refugees he met in Bangladesh. Again, he showed his humble, human touch by apologizing to the refugees for the “indifference of the world” to their plight and appearing to hold back tears hearing their stories.