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The Pope in Myanmar During A Bloody Purge

The Pope in Myanmar During A Bloody Purge

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Pope Francis' first-ever visit by a Roman Catholic pontiff to Buddhist-majority Myanmar which started on November 27 will be closely watched for his reaction to the country's bloody military campaign against more than one million ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

Among the leaders he will meet during his four-day trip is Aung San Suu Kyi whose silence about the suffering of the Rohingya sharply contrasts with Francis' August statement lamenting the "persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters."

The pope will also meet the military's Commander-in-Chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

If the Argentine-born pope mentions the Rohingya while in Myanmar, it will embarrass and dismay his hosts.

But if he silences himself, many others will be deeply disappointed.

During the pope's November 27-30 visit, "he will speak for all suffering people belonging to all groups present in Myanmar," Fr. Carlo Velardo, an attache at The Holy See's Apostolic Nunciature or embassy in Bangkok, said in an interview.

"Focusing on only one group, with due respect for those subject to this dire situation, would not be fair to other internally displaced persons belonging to other groups who share the same unfortunate situation," Fr. Velardo said.

In the interview, Fr. Velardo said he was speaking in his personal capacity and not expressing the official position of the Apostolic Nunciature or The Holy See.

The Holy See is the Roman Catholic Church's government at the Vatican.

It established full diplomatic relations with Myanmar in May and does not have an embassy in Myanmar.

In addition to meeting Mrs. Suu Kyi, Pope Francis will pay "a courtesy visit" to President Htin Kyaw in the capital Naypyitaw.

He will also visit the Supreme Sanghka Council of Buddhist Monks at the Kaba Aye Center in the commercial port of Yangon, also known as Rangoon.

The pope will pray with devotees at a mass on the outskirts of Yangon and at Yangon's St. Mary's Cathedral.

The first visit by any pope to Myanmar will be followed by his appearance in neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh on November 30-December 2 which in 1986 hosted Pope John Paul II.

Wounded, terrified and abandoned, Rohingya have been fleeing military assaults against their impoverished villages in western Myanmar during the past three months.

More than 600,000 of Myanmar's total 1.1 million Rohingya are currently sheltering in
miserable refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The 400,000 who remain in Myanmar languish in resettlement camps or fenced zones in Rakhine state suffering racial and religious persecution, according to human rights groups.

"All the apostolic visits of the Holy Father are made in the context of going to the peripheries, that is to meet and encourage people that, for various reasons, are on the fringe," Fr. Velardo said.

"The theme of the apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar is in fact 'Love and Peace'. The Pope brings his message of love, peace and reconciliation to a land that has suffered for too long and has seen people divided and armed against each other," Fr. Velardo said.

"The apostolic visit of the Holy Father is not a propaganda exercise. It is an expression of his fatherly concern not only for his own flock -- so that they may be confirmed in their faith -- but also directed to all those who are in need of sincere encouragement in order to be strengthened in their endeavors to emerge from their situation of suffering," the Holy See's attache said.

The pope's Myanmar visit "is also an appeal to all those in authority to revise their ways and work for the good of the people under their care," Fr. Velardo said.

Pope Francis' support for the Rohingya in August was broadcast by Vatican Radio.

"Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority," the pope told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square after an Angelus prayer.

"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 good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.

"Let us pray for our Rohingya brethren," he said, according to Vatican Radio.

About 700,000 Catholics live in Myanmar, also known as Burma, including three archdioceses where archbishops are responsible, plus 13 dioceses under bishops, he said.

"In some areas of the northern part of Myanmar you may find a sizeable number of Christians, both Catholics and other Christian denominations. I can't honestly tell you why."

Mrs. Suu Kyi is foreign minister, state councilor and heads the civilian government but does not control the military.

She is a Nobel Prize laureate but has been heavily criticized by international human rights groups, activists, analysts and others for refusing to publicly identify the Muslims in western Rakhine state as "Rohingya."

She insists on calling them a Muslim minority or, in some cases, ethnic Bengalis.

The Rohingya's identification is crucial to their fate.

Myanmar's military claims it is expelling illegal Bengali migrants who have no right to live in Rakhine but who call themselves "Rohingya" in a failed bid to become citizens.

Rohingya insist they are a legitimate ethnic group descended from generations of ancestors who lived in Rakhine, also known as Arakan state.

Currently stateless, they are denied citizenship in Myanmar because of widespread racial and religious hatred endorsed by many of Myanmar's Buddhists.

Meanwhile, a tiny Muslim insurgency led by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and backed by supporters in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh have attacked Myanmar's security forces, prompting the military's deadly response.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's defenders say she does not mention the word "Rohingya" because she wants to stay in power and would lose support among most Buddhists.

The dominant, unaccountable military's Commander-in-Chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who also runs the ministries of defense, border affairs and interior, is the person directly responsible for the anti-Rohingya onslaught.

British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said on November 13 the purge against Rohingya was "created by the Burmese military and it looks like ethnic cleansing."

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and human rights group Fortify Rights jointly described on November 15 "mounting evidence" of genocide against Rohingya in a report titled, "They Tried to Kill Us All": Atrocity Crimes Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

"I haven't been silent," Mrs. Suu Kyi said on November 15 defending herself against international criticism at a joint news conference alongside U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson when he visited Naypyitaw.

"What people mean is, what I say is not interesting enough. But what I say is not meant to be exciting. It's meant to be accurate," Mrs. Suu Kyi said.

"No, Aung San Suu Kyi, we're upset with your refusal to acknowledge atrocities against the Rohingya not because your statements aren't 'interesting enough' but because they are despicable," New York-based Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth tweeted on November 16.

The pope's visit will be "fun and games built around the verboten word, Rohingya," said Bangkok Post columnist Alan Dawson on November 19.

Mrs. Suu Kyi is "exposed as a terrible leader, committing or condoning the worst atrocities," Mr. Dawson wrote.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest novel, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" tells of a San Francisco psychiatrist who abducts a female patient and takes her to Asia.

His online sites are:

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

https://www.facebook.com/SheilaCarfenders/

Twitter
@nimists

Instagram
sheila_carfenders

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