Pope Francis has said Myanmar’s future depends on respecting the rights of each ethnic group, an indirect show of support for Rohingya Muslims, but disappointed human rights activists by failing to use the word “Rohingya”.
Francis also did not mention a recent military crackdown on the Rohingya – described by the UN as a textbook campaign of “ethnic cleansing” – as he delivered a speech to Burma’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other diplomats in the capital Naypyitaw.
But he lamented how Burma’s people have suffered “and continue to suffer from civil conflict and hostilities”, and insisted that everyone who calls Burma home deserves to have their basic human rights and dignity guaranteed.
Francis was accompanied on the trip and during his formal meetings with Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s President, Htin Kyaw, by his Gibraltarian translator, Monsignor Mark Miles.
Rohingya Muslims have faced state-supported discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country for decades, deprived of citizenship and unable to access basic services such as education and health care.
In August, the army began what it called “clearance operations” in Rakhine state following an attack on police posts by Rohingya insurgents.
The violence, looting and burning of villages has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
In the most anticipated speech of his week-long trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis expressed support for Ms Suu Kyi’s efforts to bring about reconciliation among different groups after decades of military dictatorship, and insisted that religious differences in must never be a cause for division or distrust.
“The future of Burma must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good,” he said.
His avoidance of the term “Rohingya” and his encouragement for Ms Suu Kyi’s government disappointed activists and human rights groups who have criticised her for what they consider a weak response to the military crackdown.
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