Myanmar’s neighbours were watching closely the Pope’s visit, worried that the shocking treatment of the Rohingya Muslims could inflame inter-religious conflicts throughout the region. Francis has intervened personally to promote deeper mutual understanding among the major religions, urging them to draw from their traditions to protect those in distress and promote social inclusion and universal human values.
Some western groups, including Amnesty International, have criticised Pope Francis for not speaking strongly against the persecution of Muslims in Rakhine state and their expulsion into Bangladesh. His advisors, and especially the Myanmar Cardinal Bo, advised the Pope not even to mention the word ‘Rohingya’ lest it be seen as provocative in the agitated political climate, resulting in further conflict, including against Christians.
Pope Francis has protested about the plight of the Rohingya in Rome on several occasions, so his views are well known. He would have been foolish to ignore the advice of the local church in Myanmar, which asked him to avoid the possibly inflammatory word but speak to the issues nonetheless.
Few listening to the Pope in Myanmar during 27-30 November were in any doubt about the meaning of his talks, which were scrutinised very carefully. Moreover, the Pope’s visit is being closely watched by neighbouring countries that are also trying to deal with conflict between religious groups and need the support of religious traditions to develop social inclusion and a culture of religious dialogue and harmony.
Francis is alert to Asian culture and sensitivities. Attacking military people publicly could have caused them to ‘lose face’ and be seen as very offensive coming from a guest in their country. Instead he emphasised that Myanmar could take another path away from fanning a Buddhist-style populism, especially by drawing from traditional universal values in Buddhism.
Myanmar is a deeply religious country, with 47 million Theravada Buddhists comprising 89 percent of the population of 53 million, with 500,000 Buddhist monks and some 75,000 nuns. Catholics number 659,000, only 1.3 per cent of the population, and with other Christians number 6 per cent, many of whom belong to the 130 minority groups, as in Kachin and Shan states, which have also been subject to abusive treatment by the military in conflicts stretching back over 60 years. The Burmese are the largest ethnic group, comprising a third of the population.
Inter-religious collaboration for human wellbeing?
Rather than sharpen painful points of conflict, Francis adopted a different strategy, appealing to the common values in all the religious traditions about harmony, peace-making, social development and human rights. Critical to his efforts to advance inter-religious dialogue and collaboration was his meeting with leading Buddhist monks, affirming these values together in a shared responsibility.
Francis is well aware of how some extremist Buddhist monks, possibly instigated by factions in the military, have alarmed the country about supposed threats of a Muslim and Islamist take-over. By whipping up fear and agitation against the Muslim minority in Rakhine, which had grown to about a third of its 3.1 million people, the military tries to justify repression against them and other minority groups.
In a breach of protocol, the army head General Min Aung Hlaing with other military leaders paid a ‘courtesy visit’ to the Pope for 15 minutes in Yangon on 27 November after his 10-hour flight from Rome. Hlaing was in charge of the military intervention in northern Rakhine state, resulting in the expulsion of 620,000 Muslims. He told the Pope ‘there’s no religious discrimination in Myanmar and there’s freedom of religion.’ He added that ‘every soldier’s goal is to build a stable and peaceful country.’
Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi
The 80-year-old Pope had previously met Aung San Suu Kyi twice in Rome, and they talked privately for twenty minutes before Francis gave his address on 28 November at the Convention Centre in the new capital of Naypyidaw. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president because the 2008 Constitution bars her since her children are British citizens. Instead she has the honorary title of State Counsellor. She is a close ally of the president, Htin Kyaw.
Before meeting Suu Kyi, Francis met for 40 minutes with some twenty representatives of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Anglican and Baptist communities.
Aung San Suu Kyi formally welcomed the Pope, saying that he brought them hope in their longing ‘for peace, national reconciliation and social harmony’, and encouragement to build the nation ‘by protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all’, while ending ‘all the conflicts’. She made the only explicit reference during the Pope’s visit to events in Rakhine state.
She referred to the Beatitudes as a challenge for all political and religious leaders to be peace-makers. ‘It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost.’
In his address Pope Francis strongly supported the reconciliation process in Myanmar, with ‘respect for each ethnic group and its identity’, and for ‘the rule of law and a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good’.
He said the people continued to suffer greatly ‘from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions’. He endorsed the government’s efforts, including through the Panglong Peace Conference, ‘to attempt to end violence, to build trust and to ensure respect for the rights of all who call this land their home’ – which also implied the Muslims from Rakhine state. He spoke of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in promoting justice, peace and development throughout the world, and its impetus to resolve conflicts through dialogue, not force.
Strong applause greeted Francis when he stressed that religions ‘need not be a source of division and mistrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building’, helping to repair wounds. He urged all religious traditions to educate people in ‘authentic religious and human values’; ‘to uproot the causes of conflict, build bridges of dialogue, seek justice and be a prophetic voice for all who suffer.’
Peace-making and the Buddhist Supreme ‘Sangha’ Council
On Wednesday 29 November, Francis took his shoes off to meet with the Supreme ‘Sangha’ Council of 47 high-ranking Buddhist monks appointed by the government. He said a common voice was needed to affirm ‘the timeless values of justice, peace and the fundamental dignity of each human person’, bringing hope to people, especially where ‘the wounds of conflict, poverty and oppression persist, and create new divisions.’
The president of the Buddhist Council, Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, replied that in the different religious traditions ‘everybody walks the same path that leads to the well-being of humanity’, and all can contribute to peace and prosperity. He found it ‘unacceptable’ that ‘terrorism and extremism’ are put forth by bad interpretations of religious beliefs. ‘We must denounce any form of expression that incites hate, false propaganda, conflict and war… and we condemn with firmness those that support such activities.’
Francis added that ‘If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudices and hatred.’ How can we do this, he asked. He quoted a saying attributed to the Buddha: ‘Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth’.
The Pope noted how close this was to the peace prayer of St Francis. He finally urged the monks to continue meeting with the local Catholic bishops and other religious groups to deepen mutual understanding to guarantee authentic justice and peace for everyone.
Priorities for Myanmar Catholics
In his meeting on 29 November with the 20 Catholic bishops, Francis focused on
- promoting healing across ethnic, regional and political conflicts
- deepening ecumenical and inter-faith ties so all can ‘reject every act of violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of religion’
- inculcating the Gospel message in the life and traditions of local communities, and
- championing human rights and democracy, especially for ‘the poorest and most vulnerable’.
The Pope’s public Mass later that day attracted some 150,000 people in Yangon, including from neighbouring countries, and he again called for peace and reconciliation, knowing that thousands of Catholics and other Christians had also suffered in ethnic violence. ‘I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence’ and he warned against any temptation to seek vengeance. ‘We think that healing can come from anger and revenge… Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus.’
Will the Pope’s visit make a difference?
Pope Francis left Myanmar on 30 November for the next stage of his journey to Bangladesh where he was expected to speak directly with Rohingya refugees.
Like Aung San Suu Kei, Francis knows that the military still retains substantial control of Myanmar, with 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and holding the ministries of defence, home affairs and border control. He strongly supported democracy and human rights for all, and most importantly promoted a dialogue of reconciliation and harmony with Buddhist religious leaders, who are best placed to help shape public opinion and encourage moves towards fully civilian government.
Fr Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who teaches history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union, a college of Melbourne’s University of Divinity.