Lack Of Moral Courage Was Highlight Of The Papal Visit To Myanmar And Bangladesh

Pope Francis in Yangon, Myanmar. (CBCM/Getty Images)
  • By not raising the Rohingya issue in public while in Myanmar, and by remaining silent on the persecution and pogrom against non-Muslims in Bangladesh, Pope Francis displayed a disappointing lack of moral courage.

Pope Francis’ six-day trip – his 21st foreign visit out of Italy – to Myanmar and Bangladesh ended on Saturday on a disappointing note. Disappointing, because the Pope did not display the spine and spunk that he is reportedly renowned for.

The Pope’s visit to the two countries was, expectedly, all about the Rohingya crisis. More so since the Pope has, in the past, been a vociferous defender of the ‘rights’ of Rohingyas and their vocal sympathiser. But the Pope never once spoke of the plight of the Rohingyas in public. He addressed a large gathering of mostly Christians at Yangon and led a mass for a congregation of young people at St Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon. He also met with Buddhist monks. But in all these public interactions, he ever once took the name of the Rohingyas whose plight he is supposedly so vociferous about. This earned him no little criticism, especially from the western media.

The Pope was reportedly advised by leading Catholic clergy, including the Archbishop of Naypyidaw, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, against using the term ‘Rohingyas’ since the Myanmarese government and the military detest the term, calling instead the lakhs of people of Bangladeshi origin who settled in the southwestern part of the country’s Rakhine state as ‘Bengalis’. The Archbishop and Catholic leaders reportedly told the Pope that using the ‘R’ word in public could invite a backlash against Myanmar’s 750,000 strong Christian community.


The Pope preferred to play safe. Significantly, he met Myanmar’s military leadership soon after landing in Myanmar, and only met the country’s elected leaders like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi later. That itself sent out a negative message and set the tone for the visit, the first by a Pope to that country. Though Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke who was accompanying the Pope said that the Myanmarese military specifically requested that the Pope meet the generals soon after he lands in Yangon, many critics say that given his global stature and moral authority, the Pope could have easily turned down that request and met the elected leaders first.

While in Myanmar, the only reference to the Rohingyas by the Pope was an indirect one. “I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” said the Pope at the public meeting in Yangon. But he advised the Rohingyas (without taking their name) to forgive. “We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he advised the Rohingyas, who have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in large numbers after alleged persecution in Rakhine. This limp appeal to the Rohingyas by the Pope and his failure to deliver a “strong message” to Myanmar’s rulers, including the generals, as many in the West wanted, earned the Pope a barrage of criticism. The Pope was seen as caring more about the safety of Myanmar’s Christians than the millions of ‘persecuted’ Rohingyas.

Pope Francis’ silence on the ‘Rohingyas’ was a big disappointment to the global community since he had, on two occasions from the Vatican, issued statements in open support of the Rohingyas and criticising the Myanmarese government for failing to protect the Rohingyas and the Myanmarese military for persecuting them. In one statement, he said that the Rohingyas in Myanmar were being “tortured, killed simply because they wanted to live their culture and their Muslim faith”. In another statement, he came down hard on the Myanmarese government for what he termed was “organised persecution” of Rohingyas. In light of his open and vocal support for the Rohingyas, to not even take their name even once during his visit to Myanmar was a severe disappointment.


It was only when he was safely out of Myanmar, and after landing in Dhaka, that the Pope took the name of the Rohingyas. But that was to be expected in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where an estimated 65,000 Rohingyas have taken refuge. Immediately on landing in Dhaka, the Pope called for “decisive international action” on the Rohingya refugee crisis. He also praised Bangladesh for providing refuge to the Rohingyas and asked the international community to increase aid to Bangladesh for the Rohingyas. This is exactly what Bangladesh wanted to hear.

The next day, at an interfaith meeting in Dhaka where he also met with 16 Rohingyas, he grandly declared: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya”. The Pope then went on to seek forgiveness from the Rohingyas on behalf of their persecutors. The Myanmarese government not only ignored the Pope’s attempts in Bangladesh to make up for his silence on the Rohingyas while in Myanmar, but also issued a statement denying persecution of Rohingyas and underlining the fact that the Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh fearing the crackdown on terrorists of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) following the coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine state in late August this year. Myanmar says that the Rohingyas support the ARSA and have fled Rakhine fearing arrests.

Also, in line with his propensity to say what his hosts want to hear and totally avoid speaking on issues that his hosts would not want him to highlight, Pope Francis skirted the issue of Bangladesh’s abysmal treatment of its minorities, especially its Hindus. As this report highlights, the number of Hindus in Bangladesh has been declining steadily and alarmingly. Hindus continue to flee Bangladesh to India every day due to the religious and economic persecution they face in that country. Attacks on Hindus, looting and destruction of their homes and business establishments, molestation and rape of Hindu womenfolk, forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, economic discrimination against Hindus and more are commonplace in Bangladesh. The Pope had nothing to say on this.


Pope Francis also had nothing to say on the ethnic cleansing of Chakmas (almost all of them Buddhists) from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This ethnic cleansing has been going on for decades and tens of thousands of Chakmas have sought refuge in India. Successive regimes in Bangladesh have depopulated the CHT of Chakmas and settled Bengali Muslims there. Right now, the Bangladesh government has been accused of driving out Buddhist Chakmas from CHT and facilitating the resettlement of Rohingyas in their place. The Pope, of course, had no words of condemnation for this ethnic cleansing and pogrom against the Chakmas.

Soon after leaving Bangladeshi airspace, the Pope made a feeble attempt to defend his silence on Rohingyas while he was in Myanmar. He said that uttering the ‘R’ word would have resulted in doors (of the Myanmarese generals and the Myanmar government) slamming on his face. He said he was keen on meeting the Myanmar leaders and generals and he claimed that he delivered stern messages to them in private. What the Pope did, or did not, tell the generals in Myanmar in private can never be verified independently and so his claim cannot be taken at face value. The Myanmarese government has, of course, denied that the Pope spoke about the refugees in his private conversations with the civilian and military leadership of the country.

By not raising the Rohingya issue in public and openly standing by his past statements expressing solidarity with the Rohingyas while he was in Myanmar, and by remaining silent on the persecution and pogrom against non-Muslims in Bangladesh, Pope Francis displayed a disappointing lack of moral courage. And he has laid himself open to charges of hypocrisy and appeasement.


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