On Monday, Pope Francis completed the first meeting of his weeklong trip to Myanmar. The Pope met with General Min Aung Hlaing this Monday evening, although originally, it was planned on Wednesday.
No details of the meeting have been disclosed yet. A Vatican spokesman said that “they spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.” The talks only lasted 15 minutes and were held in the Cardinal Charles Bo’s residence, where the two men exchanged gifts: the 80-year-old leader of Roman Catholic Church received a harp in the shape of a boat, and an ornate rice bowl and the General was given Francis’ medallion of the trip.
Today, the Pope is supposed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, then some of the Rohingya refugees and Buddhist monks. Judging by the unusually sparse official schedule of the visit though, there will also be a lot of quiet behind-the-scenes conversations.
The Pope has spoken out against the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters” on several occasions. However, before the trip, he was warned not to use the word “Rohingya” during his visit. Cardinal Bo, the head of the Catholic church in Myanmar, also urged Francis not to use the term when talking about the crisis in Myanmar. A militant Buddhist group even promised retaliation if the Pope dares to do so. And it is not an idle threat in a country where the Catholic population forms between 1 and 2 per cent of the total population.
Last week, a deal was struck between Myanmar and Bangladesh, to repatriate thousands of Muslims who fled their home country. However, the flow of the refugees from Myanmar hasn’t stopped. Rohingya Muslims are still arriving in the neighbouring country, albeit at a lesser speed. “The number of arrivals has declined, but it has not stopped,” – says a Bangladesh border guard. Since last Thursday, the day the accord was signed, over 3,000 Rohingyas have crossed the border.
The truth is, Rohingyas don’t have a home to come back to. It’s no wonder they prefer to live in overcrowded camps in southeastern Bangladesh, as their villages in Myanmar were burnt to the ground. And despite the fact that a repatriation accord was struck, nobody will protect the refugees from further attacks if they come home. The UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric stressed that the return must be conducted in “in a safe, dignified and protected manner,” but that safety is only guaranteed in words. Upon their return, the Rohingyas will have to stay in temporary settlements.
The military keeps on denying any accounts of killings, rapes and violence against the country’s ethnic minority. Moreover, the Gen. Min Aung Hlaing told the Pope that in Myanmar, there was “no religious or ethnic persecution or discrimination”.
In the country where every faith group has freedom of worship, Rohingyas are not allowed to practice their religion. In the prejudice-free tolerant Myanmar, they cannot travel or work as teachers or doctors. There is no discrimination, so they have little to no access to medical care, food or education. A “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – that’s how the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights described the situation in the country.
The UN Human Rights Council announced that it will hold a special session on December 5th regarding the crimes committed against the Muslim minority in Myanmar.