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Pope’s Planned Visit to Myanmar Risks Stoking Religious Tensions

Posted: August 22, 2017 at 2:29 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

MANDALAY, Myanmar — As rumors swirled recently that Pope Francisplanned to visit Myanmar in November, the country’s main political and religious leaders described the trip as a potential salve for a land with so much ethnic and religious tension.

But some hard-line Buddhist nationalists have warned the pope against using his expected visit to champion the Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority that many Buddhists in Myanmar insist are from neighboring Bangladesh, even though Rohingya families have lived in the country for generations.

“There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false,” said Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist monk in the former royal capital of Mandalay and a leader of a hard-line Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha, that Myanmar’s top Buddhist authority has attempted to suppress. He said that he viewed the expected visit as “political instigation.”

The expected visit, from Nov. 27 to 29, would be the first to Myanmar, also known as Burma, by any pope and may be formally announced as early as Wednesday, officials from the government and the Roman Catholic Churchsaid in interviews. Vatican officials were said to have arrived on Monday in Yangon, Myanmar’s cultural and business capital, to coordinate logistics.

Less obvious, observers said, is why the government in Myanmar, which is led by the democracy icon and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, chose to invite Pope Francis, who had previously expressed concern for the plight of the Rohingya.

Another question, they said, is whether he would be viewed by Myanmar’s hard-line Buddhist fringe as a neutral peacemaker or a pro-Muslim antagonist.

“The pope, as a world religious and spiritual leader, has the potential to speak well in this situation” and win the trust of both Buddhist nationalists and members of the Rohingya community, said Benedict Rogers, a human rights advocate based in London with the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide who has written several books about Myanmar.

“But there is a potential for a negative action from groups like Ma Ba Tha,” Mr. Rogers added. “And what scale that will be really remains to be seen.”

When Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, came to power in 2016 after winning Myanmar’s first free general election in decades the year before, she became the leader of a country with a long history of military rule, simmering religious and ethnic tensions, borderlands that were haunted by slow-burning civil wars and a military-drafted Constitution that left generals — who had once kept her under house arrest — with firm control of the country’s domestic security apparatus.

She said that her top priority was making peace with armed ethnic groups that had been fighting the Myanmar Army for decades. But the goal has proved elusive, and fighting has flared along Myanmar’s border with China, in the east.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has also been widely criticized by human rights experts who say that she has done little to stop a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by Myanmar soldiers and policemen against the Rohingya — violence that United Nations experts say very likely amounts to crimes against humanity.

The violence, along the Bangladesh border in the western state of Rakhine, began after nine border officials were killed there by Rohingya militants in October 2016. It was followed this January by the brazen assassination in Yangon of one of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s top advisers, who was Muslim, and later by vigilante attacks and brawls between Buddhists and Muslims there that shook the city.

In February, Pope Francis rebuked Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya. “They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,’’ he said during his weekly audience at the Vatican.

Myanmar said in June that it would refuse to grant visas to three United Nations-backed experts who planned to conduct a human rights fact-finding mission to determine the circumstances of violence against civilians in Rakhine State and other restive areas.

But in May, Myanmar established diplomatic ties with the Vatican after a parliamentary vote that won support from the military’s political representatives.

Analysts said that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi may see Pope Francis as an impartial figure whose visit could help diffuse some of the international outcry over her handling of the violence in Rakhine State — and perhaps also hold the military to account for the violence to a greater extent than she realistically could herself. She has been reluctant to alienate the military, in part because its political representatives control crucial ministries and have the power to veto proposed constitutional amendments.

The pope’s visit will “improve the peace process and national reconciliation and create a communication bridge between Myanmar and the international community,” said U Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst in Yangon.

Mainstream Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic leaders in Myanmar echoed that sentiment in interviews.

“I think the pope’s visit will lead to an improvement in interfaith relations, and I hope we can get good advice on the Rakhine conflict,” said U Tin Maung Than, the general secretary of Myanmar’s Islamic Religious Affairs Council, a nongovernmental organization.

There had been speculation in recent weeks about whether the pope’s Myanmar visit, which would precede his expected trip to Bangladesh, would include a side trip to Rakhine State — and how hard-line Buddhist nationalists such as Ashin Wirathu might react.

But the Rev. Julio Giulietti, a Jesuit priest from New York who lives in Yangon, said that Pope Francis would stop only in Yangon and in the capital, Naypyidaw, where he planned to meet with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the army’s top generals.

Myanmar’s long isolation under military rule “has been lifted, but what do you do after five-and-a-half decades of not knowing your neighbor?” Father Giulietti said. “When the pope comes, this is an image of international neighborliness, and I think that is going to be a very big boost to the lives of people here.”


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