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Top Catholic Official in Myanmar Speaks Out on Treatment of Rohingya Muslims and the Risks of a Military Coup

6 minute read

As tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee violence in Myanmar and global criticism mounts over the civilian government’s silence on the crisis, the country’s top Catholic leader says that Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi “should have spoken out.”

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Catholic archbishop of Yangon, says the people in Rakhine State face “immense” suffering, exacerbated by decades of neglect and mistreatment, for which there is no quick fix.

“The world looks at Aung San Suu Kyi with the same lens with which it looked at her during her struggle for democracy,” Bo told TIME in an email. “Now she is part of the government, she is a political leader. Surely she should have spoken out.”

More than 370,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Mynamar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh in the past three weeks, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. The recent conflict began on August 25, when Myanmar’s army launched a crackdown in Rakhine State following an alleged attack by Rohingya militants. The U.N. Human High Commissioner for Refugees has received reports that security forces and militia are burning Rohingya towns and shooting fleeing civilians. The United Nations’ human rights chief told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday that the situation seemed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar’s leader, State Counselor and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has not yet condemned the violence against the Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist country. On Wednesday, Suu Kyi canceled her planned trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which begins next week, and she has blamed a misinformation campaign and “fake news” for fueling the crisis. She plans to give a “state of the union” speech on Tuesday to speak both to her country and to the world. Fellow Nobel laureates the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Malala Yousafzai have all urged her to intervene in the crisis.

Suu Kyi’s position, Bo says, is challenging because democracy in Myanmar remains fragile. Even though Suu Kyi was elected in a landmark democratic election in 2015, the military stills controls key government ministries, including Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. “Aung San Suu Kyi is walking a tight rope walk,” Bo says. “Already dark forces are clamoring for return to army rule.”

“Stigmatizing Aung San Suu Kyi and attacking her through media is not a long term solution,” he continues. “A false step will see her out of government and that would be the end of any dream of democracy. We should always remember the army took back democracy three times in the history of Myanmar.”

Though the suffering is great, Bo also cautions against labeling the violence as a genocide. “In this context, it is advisable at this time not to qualify the situation as genocide or ethnic cleansing against the Muslim community—which the government does not recognize as an ethnic nationality but as a group of interlopers from Bangladesh,” Bo says. “It is important to try to diffuse the tension and anger in the region, and use language that will not rile either side.”

He adds that Myanmar has problems not just in Rahkine State, but in Karen, Kachin, and Shan. “All these conflicts threw out thousands as IDPs and refugees,” Bo says.

Pope Francis elevated Bo as the country’s top Catholic in 2015, making him the first-ever archbishop from Myanmar to join the Catholic College of Cardinals, the church’s top global body from which popes are selected.

Pope Francis has spoken out regularly in support of the Rohingya Muslim population. In late August, as the violence escalated, Pope Francis announced that he will visit the country in November. He will also visit Bangladesh, the neighboring country to which the Muslim refugees are fleeing. The day before the Vatican announced his trip, Pope Francis appealed for the end of “the persecution of the religious minority, our Rohingya brothers and sisters,” and asked for them to be given “their full rights.”

Pope Francis has also highlighted the plight of Muslims being driven out of Myanmar as part of his efforts to build sympathy for migrants of all religions worldwide. In February, days after President Donald Trump announced a travel ban that suspended refugee entry to the US and temporarily barred visitors from from seven Muslim-majority countries, Pope Francis spoke about “migrants being driven away, exploited” around the globe. He then also asked for prayer for the Rohingya. “Driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another, because they are not wanted,” Pope Francis said. “They are good, peaceful people. They are not Christians; they are good; they are our brothers and sisters!”

Cardinal Bo also agrees the problem is bigger than Myanmar. “The global Islamophobia and the recent discrimination of Muslims with impunity by powerful nations are enkindling fires of hatred in many countries against Islam,” Bo says. “I am shocked at the nationalistic feeling provoked and spread by handful of men with social media.”

The Vatican’s official relationship, and influence, with Myanmar is still young. The two countries established diplomatic relations just four months ago in May, when Suu Kyi visited Rome. The Vatican has yet to establish an embassy, called a nunciature, in the country. Once that is done, Bo says, the Vatican can officially join peace-making efforts between different ethnic groups in the country. Local bishops are “intensely involved” in peace processes in the country, he adds. Bo has met several times with Suu Kyi, and he also met recently with senior generals of the army for the first time.

Pope Francis’ upcoming visit comes at a critical moment for the country’s democratic progress, and as violence against the Rohingya Muslims continues. Already expectations are high. Under Pope Francis’ leadership, the Vatican has had significant diplomatic influence in conflict areas, from Cuba to Venezuela to the Middle East. But the challenges are as high as the hopes.

“I do hope he will address many issue[s] of all people in Myanmar in a way that brings healing not hatred,” Bo says. “A section here is not happy to see the real peace.”

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