Pope Francis arrived in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Tuesday for keenly-awaited talks with the nation’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. A former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Suu Kyi has been ostracized by the global human rights community over her reaction to the Rohingya crisis.
Although Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, it has small Christian, Hindu and Muslim populations — most notably the minority Rohingya Muslims, who have been driven out in huge numbers from the country’s Rakhine state in recent weeks due to a highly-criticized military crackdown.
A hard-line group of Buddhist monks has warned there would be “a response” if the pope spoke openly about the Rohingya.
Catholic leaders in Myanmar have reportedly urged Francis to respect the views of the government and the majority of the population that do not consider Rohingya to be citizens, instead calling them “Bengali” — implying they are from Bangladesh.
From afar, Francis has repeatedly spoken out about the plight of the Muslim minority, calling them his Rohingya “brothers and sisters.”
A similar approach in Myanmar is fraught with potential diplomatic danger, as the term “Rohingya” is viewed as unacceptable.
DW correspondent Bastian Hartig said the pope and Suu Kyi were expected to discuss the Rohingya situation, as well as the country’s transformation following 2015 elections, and persisting internal conflicts.
“In Kachin state … tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting between the Myanmar army and ethnic rebel fighters, and they’ve been living in refugee camps for many years,” he said.
“Many of them are, in fact Christian, so their future and fate will surely be something that the pope will have at heart and that he’ll be raising with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Following the meeting with Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, the pontiff will make a speech publically addressing lawmakers and diplomatic representatives.
Before heading to meet Suu Kyi, the pope held talks with Myanmar’s religious leaders in the city of Yangon.
A Vatican spokesman said Francis stressed a message of “unity in diversity” during a 40-minute interfaith meeting with Myanmar’s Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders.
The spokesman said Francis told them to work together to rebuild the country and that if there are arguments, they should reconcile quickly like brothers.
Francis also briefly met separately with Buddhist leader Sitagu Sayadaw in “an effort to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence as the only way ahead,” the spokesman said. Sitagu has been criticized for using ethnic slurs against Muslims.
Four-day papal trip
On Monday, the 80-year-old pontiff received a “courtesy visit” from army chief Min Aung Hlaing, whose troops have been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other crimes against the Rohingya population. The general denies the allegations.
Francis’ four-day visit to Myanmar was planned before the recent escalation of violence, which began in August when attacks by Rohingya militants were countered by a major army offensive.
Francis will travel on to Bangladesh on Thursday.
nm/rt (AP, dpa)