VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis plunges into a diplomatic minefield next week with visits to under-fire Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh amid mounting outrage over the plight of persecuted Rohingya Muslims.
Some 620,000 Rohingya, more than half their total number, have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August as a result of violence that the UN and the United States have described as ethnic cleansing.
Most of the refugees, a third of them children, have ended up in squalid refugee camps in impoverished Bangladesh, where they have given consistent and harrowing accounts of murder, arson and rape being used as part of a military-orchestrated campaign to force them out of mainly Buddhist Myanmar.
The Myanmar military insists it is engaged in counter-insurgency operations. But rights groups dismiss that slant, citing recent events.
Amnesty International said this week the treatment of the Rohingya was racial discrimination on the level of apartheid South Africa while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities” perpetrated in Rakhine.
Church officials say the Argentine Pontiff will seek to use his trip to encourage reconciliation, dialogue and efforts to alleviate the crisis.
Hopes on that front were bolstered on Thursday when Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to start repatriating some of the refugees in two months time.
However, rights groups have raised concerns about the repatriation plans, including questioning where the minority will be resettled after hundreds of their villages were razed, and how their safety will be ensured in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is surging.
Many of the refugees say they are reluctant to return to Myanmar unless they are granted full citizenship.
Rohingya refugees meeting
Francis will however have to tread extremely carefully in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are widely detested and officials even refuse to use the term, insisting instead on the minority being classed as illegal Bengali immigrants.
Francis arrives in Myanmar on Monday and will spend three days there. In a last minute change to his program he now plans to have a private meeting with the head of the country’s army, General Min Aung Hlaing.
“It is going to be very interesting diplomatically,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.
The meeting with the military chief was organized on the recommendation of Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, who also advised the Pope not to use the term “Rohingya.”