The worsening humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has caught the attention of Roman Catholic Pope Francis, who has become the first ever Pope to visit the Southeast Asian country.
The government of the primarily Buddhist country Myanmar has been the target of international condemnation, with accusations of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim population. The Myanmar army firmly denies allegations of rape, torture, murder and forced displacement of the Rohingya people.
While being advised by his peers not to specifically mention the Rohingya people on his visit, Pope Francis has previously criticised any violence against the ethnic group. Political commentators are concerned the Pope’s rhetoric may not be harsh enough when meeting with Myanmar’s officials.
Upon his arrival in Myanmar Pope Francis was warmly received by thousands of Myanmar’s Catholic population. The Catholic population of Myanmar numbers around 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people. 150,000 of these Catholics are registered to attend a special mass to be hosted by Pope Francis.
In a 15 minute meeting with Myanmar’s army chief, Pope Francis was reassured that there was no ethnic cleansing or displacement of the Rohingya Muslims. The army chief stated that Myanmar was a country that valued religious freedom and ethnic diversity.
Vatican officials described the visit as attempting to discuss the responsibilities of Myanmar’s government during a period of transition for the country. Critics of Myanmar have not been convinced this visit is truly addressing the issue.
Over half a million Rohingya refugees have escaped across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh, describing brutal experiences at the hand of the Myanmar army. The USA, UK and United Nations have all accused Myanmar of committing ethnic cleansing despite the government blaming the disruption on militant uprisings.
Pope Francis is set to have further meetings with the country’s female head of state Aung San Suu Kyi who shares power with the military and has been criticised for her poor handling of the refugee crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel peace prize winner but has had her reputation tarnished due to recent events.
The Pope’s visit to Myanmar is an exciting time for the country’s Catholic population who have historically been isolated from the Vatican. Despite the festivities held in Pope Francis’ honour, much of the world outside Myanmar is hoping to see firm criticism from the Pope regarding the accusations of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar army.
After his visit to Myanmar is over, Pope Francis will travel to Bangladesh where he is set to meet with the displaced Rohingya refugees.