VATICAN CITY — The Vatican announced Monday that Pope Francis will be making the first-ever papal trip to Myanmar (Burma), visiting the cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw Nov. 27-30.
The apostolic voyage promises to be a historic one, coming after the country recently began undergoing a transition from a once brutal military dictatorship to a democratically elected state.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy campaigner who was placed under house arrest by the military government for 15 years, is now Myanmar’s first democratically elected leader, although the military still retains significant control over the country.
Myanmar also continues to suffer from internal ethnic conflicts and intolerance, in particular between Buddhist extremists (helped by the military), and the Rohingya, an Islamic minority who live mostly in Rakhine state — sometimes called Arakan — on the country’s west coast.
After praying the Angelus Sunday, the Pope called for prayers for “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” who are being persecuted. “I would like to express my full closeness to them — and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, who shall give them their full rights,” he said. The government of Myanmar does not recognize the citizenship or the ethnic minority status of the Rohingya.
To find out more about the situation there, the Register sat down with Benedict Rogers, a Catholic human-rights activist on Asia and East Asia director for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
An authority on Myanmar and author of five books on the country, Rogers explains why he believes a papal visit is very timely, how much religious freedom has improved in the East Asian nation, and shares his expectations about the extent to which the Holy Father can really help further peace and reconciliation.
After the visit, the Pope is due to fly to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, before returning to Rome Dec. 2.
How significant will the visit be for Burma?
I think it’s hugely significant. In the first place, it’s historic, as no pope has ever been there before. It also follows a series of historic events for the Church in Burma: the appointment of its first cardinal a couple of years ago, the beatification of its first blessed, Blessed Isidor [Ngei Ko Lat, a Burmese catechist martyred in 1950 and beatified in 2014], the celebration about four years ago of 500 years of the Church in Burma, and, of course, most recently, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Burma. The Pope has, of course, also met Aung San Suu Kyi at least twice, including recently.
So for all these reasons, it’s very significant; but I also think it’s very timely in terms of Burma’s journey because, although Burma has gone through at least the beginnings of democratic transition, it’s still a very fragile situation with a lot of conflict. From what I understand, the Pope will focus on peace and reconciliation, and that will be very, very welcome. Christians are certainly part of the conflict, and victims to a certain extent, but the worst conflict is between Buddhists and Muslims. So, in a way, the Church has the potential to play the role of third-party mediator.
When there was talk of the possibility of a visit, some were saying it’s not the right time, that the situation wasn’t yet suitable for a papal trip. Why was there that concern, and was this apprehension justified?
I haven’t heard this firsthand, but I have heard it secondhand, and I think it’s coming from two quarters — within the Church itself and within the Vatican — [from those] who think that as the Holy See has just established diplomatic relations, maybe it’s best to give it time before a visit, and given that the situation in the country is still volatile. The “old school” may be of the mind to tread carefully.
Secondly, I think there are some in Burma itself who are concerned. The first set of concerns I wouldn’t take seriously, but I think in Burma there is an understandable concern that there’s basically this rise of extremist Buddhist nationalism. There’s this movement called “Ma Ba Tha,” which, translated, means the “Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms to talk about extremist Buddhism, but it’s there, and it’s an extremist Buddhist movement.
There is concern that this visit — given this Pope does focus on speaking out for minorities — has the potential to cause a backlash against Catholics and Christians from the Buddhist nationalists. My view is that, yes, there are some risks to the visit, but it’s actually very, very timely. And I think, particularly given the nature of this Pope, it really has the potential to be quite a prophetic visit. Therefore, even though the stakes are quite high, it’s worth taking the risks now rather than doing a “softly, softly” approach.
The military government fell fairly recently. How much has the political situation improved since that time?
It’s a very common perception that the military has fallen, but I would say they haven’t fallen at all. They were very much part of designing this transition and still very much in power. So even though it’s an elected government run by Aung San Suu Kyi, under the constitution that the military wrote, the military still has control of three key ministries: home affairs, border affairs and defense. So they still have a lot of power, and 25% of seats in parliament are reserved for them under the constitution. And Aung San Suu Kyi is not eligible to be president: She is the de facto head of government, and the president is someone she herself nominated and is an ally, but nevertheless the military still have a lot of power.
To what extent has religious freedom in the country improved?
It’s a mixed picture. In terms of the government itself, the restrictions are probably more relaxed than they were under the military, but in society as a whole, there’s been a significant rise of religious intolerance. So this Buddhist nationalist movement I mentioned is predominantly targeting Muslims, both the Rohingya group [Muslims who settled in Rakhine state since the 15th century], but also the wider Muslim population in the country. So there’s been a number of incidents of significant violence against Muslims, a lot of what’s called hate speech — and it is real hate speech. I know the term is often used in ways we might not agree with, but this is genuine: Buddhist monks preaching hatred and campaigns to boycott Muslim businesses and so on. That has a knock-on effect on Christians, as well.
So there’s an atmosphere of growing religious intolerance, which has come from within society, although there’s evidence to show that if not the military as a whole, then elements of the military-backed political parties are also involved in this. So religious freedom is still an issue, but it’s morphed from being about government restrictions to a climate of intolerance in society.
What is Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement in this, if any?
Military elements are to blame for fueling the violence, and Aung San Suu Kyi certainly can’t be blamed for creating or fueling that. There is criticism of her, some of which is fair, some of which is unfair, for not doing enough to speak out against it. She’s in a very difficult position, she’s walking a tightrope, and she’s having to choose her fights quite carefully as she’s trying to keep the military on the side with the democratic transition and ultimately constitutional reform, which is what she wants. So she has compromised a lot and has not spoken out in the way one would have liked her to. But she’s certainly not responsible for orchestrating it.
What are the chances that those in charge, the military for instance, will actually listen to and act on the appeals of the Pope for peace?
It’s hard to predict, but one of the things the military has certainly sought in the last five-six years, and the whole reason why they went down the path of some sort of democratic reform, was that they wanted to shed their pariah status and win credibility in the international community. So I think anything that can be done to sort of expose the injustices that they’re still responsible for — the more pressure that creates for them in terms of their reputation in the international community. So for those reasons, they may listen to some extent. Despite my respect for him, the Pope alone is not going to change things overnight, but him speaking out from a moral perspective, if it’s combined with political pressure from the international community, could have some effect.
What’s the significance of the two cities he’s visiting, Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw?
Yangon was historically the capital and still is the major city. Na Pi Taw is the relatively new capital, built by the previous military dictator, Than Shwe, about 10 years ago perhaps. The only reason he’ll be going to Nay Pyi Taw will be to meet the government, and I expect Aung San Suu Kyi will be in Nay Pyi Taw. I don’t know who else he’ll meet in the government and military, but they’ll all be based there. So that’s the only reason for going to Nay Pyi Taw. It’s really the most bizarre, artificial construct and a pretty dead city. It’s got something like a 10-lane highway with virtually no traffic on it. There was once a documentary made — a few years ago — and the people who made the film actually played soccer on the highway, as there was nothing coming [along the road]. Yangon is a bustling, historic, major city. Obviously we don’t know the details of his program yet or what he’s doing. Presumably there’ll be several Masses and obviously meetings with the government.
What other issues do you hope he’ll highlight?
I hope he’ll highlight the plight of other ethnic minorities in the country, in particular the Kachin people in the north of the country. Actually, the Kachin and the Shan in the north, who are facing a similar military offensive by the army. The significant thing about the Kachin is that they’re predominantly Christian. They’re mostly Baptist, but there’s also a fairly sizable Catholic population, so I would hope and very much welcome him speaking out on behalf of the Rohingyas, but I very much hope he’ll also speak up for the Kachin because I think it will be important to be speak up for all minorities.
How important is it that he speaks out on behalf of the persecuted Muslims?
It’s very important; it sends out a very powerful message to people of all faiths about the importance of religious freedom and human dignity and basic rights.
The plight of the Rohingyas is the most sensitive issue in the country, and the Pope speaking out on it is incredibly welcome. I was delighted when I heard what he said after the Angelus [Aug. 27]. But I think there will be sensitivities in the country, and so I think it’s important the Pope does speak for the whole of the people of Burma, as well.
What implications could the entire visit, including his trip to Bangladesh, have on the region as a whole?
First of all, the visit to Bangladesh is not wholly unconnected to the visit to Burma, in the sense that the plight of the Rohingya people is an issue for both Burma and Bangladesh because they straddle the border between the two countries. The Burmese traditionally say they’re Bangladeshi and should go back to Bangladesh, which is completely wrong. But Bangladesh has not been very generous to Rohingyas who have fled across the border as refugees and pushed a lot of people back. Although there are refugee camps in Bangladesh, in recent years they haven’t accepted more. So, hopefully, the Pope will be able to appeal to both governments to treat the Rohingyas more humanely.
The other significance here is the Pope speaking out about a persecuted Muslim minority. I think the signals that sends to governments of Muslim-majority countries could be very significant; so I hope the government of Bangladesh, where Christians and other non-Muslims are under increasing pressure, but also other governments in the region and around the world, will take note of the fact that the Pope is speaking up for a Muslim minority, and so will give attention to other minorities. There is in Bangladesh a rise of Islamism, which has resulted in increasing pressure on Christians, but also in the past couple of years there’s been a series of attacks on atheists in Bangladesh — some horrific attacks, including some killings, dreadful knife attacks by militant Islamists on atheists and secularists. So I think if the Pope can bring a message of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion for all, that’s a message needed in both countries.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.