Speaking recently to pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis called for an end to the violent persecution of the minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The Pope, who has promoted the “dialogue of civilizations” and the “culture of encounters,” continues to be a vocal advocate of religious freedom and critic of Myanmar’s harsh treatment of its Rohingya Muslim population.
In his St. Peter’s Square address, Francis stated, “I would like to express my full closeness to [the Rohingya Muslims].” The Pope added that he wants to “raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.” He is expected to visit Myanmar from November 27-29. This visit will be the first of any pope to the country.
Tension has reached a boiling point between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government. Earlier this week thousands of Rohingya refugees attempted to flee the restive province of Rakhine into neighboring Bangladesh. Advocates for the Rohingya told Al Jazeera that at least 800 people, including dozens of women and children, have been killed in the latest round of violence. The Daily Sabah reports the number of dead might be as high as 2,000-3,000. According to Reuters (Dhaka), around 27,400 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence, and a further 20,000 are now in “no man’s land” between the two countries.
Ultra-nationalist Buddhists have warned Pope Francis against championing the rights of the Rohingya. According to Ashin Wirathu, an ultra-nationalist monk and leader of the Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha, stated, “There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false.” Wirathu also claims that Pope Francis’ visit is nothing but “political instigation.”
Wirtahu’s emergence can be traced back to 2010 when Myanmar transitioned from a military junta to a democracy. The new government allowed Wirathu’s “969 Movement” to form. Referring to himself as “the Burmese bin Laden,” the 969 Movement has been criticized for having the support of government officials as well as prominent military leaders. Other reports claim that he has been shunned by Myanmar’s government and the country’s Buddhist hierarchy.
Following the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Wirathu said he feels vindicated by US voters for electing a person who is widely considered to be Islamophobic. Wirathu drew parallels between his views on Islam and those of Trump, stating: “We were blamed by the world, but we are just protecting our people and country… The world singled us out as narrow-minded. But as people from the country that is the grandfather of democracy and human rights elected Donald Trump, who is similar to me in prioritizing nationalism, there will be less finger-pointing from the international community.”
There are about 1.1 million Rohingya in Myanmar. Muslims comprise approximately 4% of Myanmar’s population of roughly 60 million. Many Rohingya began migrating from modern-day Bangladesh in the late 18th century, but in 1826 Britain annexed the part of Myanmar where most Rohingya Muslims live today. Harb Michel continues:
Rohingya remain there today as Britain’s takeover of the Arakan state encouraged mass migration of Bengali Muslims who would become laborers and administrators in the newly established colony. As a result of the influx, Burmese Buddhist peasants were internally displaced. It’s not difficult to understand then, why, in 1948, after Burma gained its independence from Britain, the government sought to rectify the plight of its displaced Buddhist population. However, this was no simple task. New generations of now-Burmese Muslims were born and raised in the country and so, in response to attempts to force them out, they attempted to declare their own independence. They failed. Tensions with the government escalated again in 1961 when the Rohingya tried their hand at secession once more and were put down. Recent political events, along with a historical narrative that blames the Rohingya victims rather than the British colonial forces, have unfortunately converged into a lethal dose of Islamophobia.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship rights based on the Burmese Citizenship Law of 1982. According to this law, the Rohingya do not constitute an ethnic group. Today, the Rohingya face discrimination in the realms of employment, education, healthcare services and ownership of property as well as land. In 2012, following a series of violent attacks by Buddhists in Rakhine, between 140-200,000 Rohingya became internally displaced. This problem has yet to be solved.
The conditions for Rohingya Muslims have worsened under the leadership of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a landslide victory in November 2015 after being a political prisoner for many years. Suu Kyi has 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. Suu Kyi has been described as being “caught between religious nationalists and the still powerful military, which ruled for decades prior to watershed elections in 2015, and Western donors, aid agencies and human rights organizations critical of her failure to end ethnic strife and implement reforms.”
As it relates to the current condition of the Rohingya, Pope Francis’ leaderships sets the standard for world leaders to follow. In a recent speech at the historic Colonial-era building in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Pope Francis declared that the right to religious freedom “is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.” This was not the first time that the Pope spoke out in defense of religious freedom. In a June 2014 address in Vatican City, Francis stated that, “Religious freedom is not just a matter of thought or private devotion. It is the freedom to live – both privately and publicly – according to the ethical principles that are a consequence of the truth found.” As mentioned in the previous section, abuses against religious freedom have reached crisis proportions in Myanmar, where the Rohingya Muslims – as well as Christians – are suffering despite Suu Kyi’s slow push towards democracy. In this sense, the problem in Myanmar extends beyond the Rohingya to religious minority populations in the country.
The 1947 Panglong Agreement was intended to uphold the principles of equality and self-determination for not only Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, but also the plethora of ethnic and religious minority populations living throughout the land. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San Suu Kyi was a principal author of this agreement. However, after the military coup in 1962, the Myanmar military generally ruled through a divide-and-conquer strategy that pitted Buddhists, Christians and Muslims against each other. Anyone opposing military rule including Buddhist monks, were dealt with severely. The Rohingya Muslims have felt the brunt of this force.
A 2016 commission set up by Myanmar’s government says it has so far found no evidence of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. Specifically, the commission claimed in an interim report that there is insufficient evidence that any of the Rohingya had been raped by security forces, despite widespread claims. The commission report also ignored the most serious claim – that Myanmar’s military forces have been killing civilians as collective punishment for attacks by Rohingya militants.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has used the term “the slow genocide” to refer to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. In a 2015 Newsweek article, Tutu raised some alarming issues: the Rakhine state regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants; more than 100,000 Rohingya are trapped in internment camps; they may not leave “for their own protection”; they must hold identity cards; and they have no voting rights. Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, also claimed in 2016 that the Rohingya “are teetering on the edge of outright genocide.” Perhaps most strikingly, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an entire page dedicated to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. Two features on this page include “What is Genocide?” and “Preventing Genocide.”
Will Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar stop the slow genocide? No, that is an impossible feat. However, Francis is making a bold move for all world leaders to follow. He is pulling no punches by calling on Christians to cross over to the other side to meet with Muslims and to stand in solidarity with people who face persecution. People and leaders of all faiths must be courageous and stand with the Rohingya Muslims, the most persecuted group in the world. Our humanity depends on it.