Pope's planned visit to Myanmar risks stoking religious tensions

Pope Francis leads Angelus, traditional Sunday's prayer, in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City.
Pope Francis leads Angelus, traditional Sunday's prayer, in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City. PHOTO: EPA

MANDALAY, MYANMAR (NYTIMES) - Even before the pope's expected visit to Myanmar has been officially announced, it has become the subject of boisterous contention in a country riven by religious and ethnic tension.

While Myanmar's main political and religious leaders described the visit of Pope Francis as a potential salve for the country's troubles, hard-line Buddhist nationalists warned the pope against using it to champion the Rohingya - a persecuted Muslim minority that many Buddhists in Myanmar insist are from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though Rohingya families have lived in the country for generations.

"There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That's false," said Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist monk in the former royal capital, Mandalay, and a leader of a hard-line Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha, that Myanmar's top Buddhist authority has tried to suppress. He said he viewed the expected visit as "political instigation".

The expected visit, from Nov 27 to 29, would be the first to Myanmar, also known as Burma, by any pope and may be formally announced as early as Wednesday, officials from the government and the Roman Catholic Church said in interviews. Vatican officials were said to have arrived Monday in Yangon, Myanmar's cultural and business capital, to coordinate logistics.

Less obvious, observers said, is why the government in Myanmar, which is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate, chose to invite Francis, who had previously expressed concern for the plight of the Rohingya.

Another question, they said, is whether he would be viewed by Myanmar's hard-line Buddhist fringe as a neutral peacemaker or a pro-Muslim antagonist.

"The pope, as a world religious and spiritual leader, has the potential to speak well in this situation" and win the trust of both Buddhist nationalists and members of the Rohingya community, said Benedict Rogers, a human rights advocate based in London with the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide who has written several books about Myanmar.

"But there is a potential for a negative action from groups like Ma Ba Tha," Rogers added. "And what scale that will be really remains to be seen." When Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, came to power in 2016 after winning Myanmar's first free general election in decades the year before, she became the leader of a country with a long history of military rule, simmering religious and ethnic tensions, borderlands that were haunted by slow-burning civil wars and a military-drafted Constitution that left generals - who had once kept her under house arrest - with firm control of the domestic security apparatus.

She said that her top priority was making peace with armed ethnic groups that had been fighting the Myanmar Army for decades. But the goal has proved elusive, and fighting has flared along Myanmar's border with China, in the east.

Suu Kyi has also been widely criticised 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 - violence that U.N. experts say probably amounts to crimes against humanity.

The violence, along the Bangladesh border in the western state of Rakhine, began after nine border officials were killed there by Rohingya militants in October. It was followed in January by the brazen assassination in Yangon of one of Suu Kyi's top advisers, who was Muslim, and later by vigilante attacks and brawls between Buddhists and Muslims that shook the city.

In February, Francis rebuked Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya.

"They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith," he said during a weekly audience at the Vatican.

Myanmar said in June that it would refuse to grant visas to three U.N.-backed experts who planned to conduct a human rights fact-finding mission to determine the circumstances of violence against civilians in Rakhine state and other restive areas.

But in May, Myanmar established diplomatic ties with the Vatican after a parliamentary vote that won support from the military's political representatives.

Analysts said that Suu Kyi may see Francis as an impartial figure whose visit could help defuse some of the international outcry over her handling of the violence in Rakhine state - and perhaps also hold the military to account for it to a greater extent than she realistically could herself. She has been reluctant to alienate the military, in part because its political representatives control crucial ministries and have the power to veto proposed constitutional amendments.

The visit would "improve the peace process and national reconciliation and create a communication bridge between Myanmar and the international community," said Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst in Yangon.

Mainstream Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic leaders in Myanmar echoed that sentiment in interviews.

"I think the pope's visit will lead to an improvement in interfaith relations, and I hope we can get good advice on the Rakhine conflict," said Tin Maung Than, the general secretary of Myanmar's Islamic Religious Affairs Council, a non-governmental organisation.