Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar last week was an overwhelming success and may provide the much needed spark to ignite the government’s peace process and its efforts to bring reconciliation to the country’s violence-torn western region of Rakhine. The Pope’s message was loud and clear: the only way forward for Myanmar was “love and peace”, the title used for his visit.
“It’s good that the Christian leader has come here and preached peace,” said Win Lwin, a 40-year old taxi driver in Yangon, and a staunch supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi. “Pope Francis’ visit was a clear endorsement of the government’s peace process as defined by Aung San Suu Kyi,” Denzil Abel, a Myanmar intellectual, former diplomat and Catholic told the Bangkok Post.
“The Pope’s visit is exciting for both Christians and Buddhists,” said Nay Aye, a former seaman, now earning his living driving a delivery van. “His words of tolerance and kindness were an inspiration to us all,” he added. He was one of 200,000 people who crammed into the Kyaikkasan sports ground to hear his sermon in Yangon, on the penultimate day of his visit.
Indeed the Pope’s visit was a diplomatic triumph: by both example and words he showed that respect for others, tolerance and compassion should be the way forward. Apart from his speech in the capital Nay Pyi Taw to government officials, foreign diplomats, political parties and civil society, his key sermon in Yangon and a mass for the young people at St Mary’s Cathedral, he met separately with the army commander-in-chief, Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the senior leaders of the Buddhist and Christian faiths. He also had a private moment with the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
He stressed the similarities between religions, the shared goals and vision. “I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” he told his audience in Nay Pyi Taw. Resist the temptation to exact revenge, instead show “forgiveness and compassion” and allow these wounds to heal, he urged.
“He did not come to blame or lecture,” Cardinal Charles Bo, the head of Myanmar Catholic Church told the Bangkok Post on the eve of his visit. “He is not here to convert or proselytise,” he emphasised. “He doesn’t want to anger any community; he is cautious not to divide or polarise.”
And indeed the Pope continually stressed unity and diversity. “Even for non-Christians, the Pope’s message was like a beacon, and his visit showed strong support for our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
His visit also helped the people of Myanmar see the country in a positive light, instead of the international condemnation that they have got used to, said a government insider.
But the Pope on this visit also tried to offer practical pointers to help the peace process and national reconciliation. The Pope was keen to stress the role the next generation will play in the country’s evolution, saying the future of Myanmar will depend on the young people.
Their education must also be based on “ethical values” including diversity and tolerance and not technical training alone, he suggested, adding that education should teach “the ethical values of honesty, integrity and human solidarity that can ensure the consolidation of democracy and the growth of unity and peace at every level of society.” This is an appropriate observation, as it comes at a timely moment for Myanmar’s government and educators as they tackle the mammoth task of reforming and rewriting the national curriculum.
One area where the Pope and the Vatican could play a positive role is in fostering interfaith dialogue, a key recommendation of the Kofi Annan Commission for reconciliation in Rakhine. The Church has already laid out a framework for interfaith dialogue, adopted in Rome in 1965, in the Nostrae Aetate. It promotes discussion and sharing between all religions. At the time it was adopted, the synod urged all Catholics and Muslims to forget the hostilities and differences of the past and to work together for mutual understanding and benefit. This could also help in the Myanmar context.
The Vatican has previously intervened quietly in conflict situations in the past, at the request of the antagonists. The “good office” of the Vatican, not unlike the “good offices” of the UN secretary-general, has played an important role in the past, during the Colombian peace talks, and border disputes between Argentina and Chile. The advantage of their involvement is that it is extremely discreet and non-political. Some peace activists have suggested that the Vatican could play a role mediating between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and between the communities in Rakhine.
But the Pope also had some pointed advice for Aung San Suu Kyi. He advised her that she should not forget the UN, and allow them to play a role in Myanmar — especially in Rakhine. Publicly he drew attention to the importance of the UN in promoting peace, development and human rights.
The UN, he reminded his audience in Myanmar, was formed at the same time as the universal declaration of human rights, in the aftermath of the two world wars. These reflected the “international community’s efforts to promote justice, peace, and human development worldwide, and to resolve conflicts through dialogue, not the use of force”.
Some analysts believe this was a gentle reminder to the State Counsellor that she should try to mend relations with the UN — which are at an almost all-time low — and allow them an important role in repatriation, reconstruction and reconciliation in Rakhine.
This was also the advice the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan — who headed the Advisory Commission whose recommendations are the basis of the Myanmar government’s plans for solving the Rakhine crisis — recently gave Surakiart Sathirathai, a former Thai foreign minister and chairman of a newly formed international advisory committee expected to be announced later this week.
The overriding importance of the Pope’s visit was also the signal it sent to the international community, according to government insiders.
Whereas the West in particular points accusative fingers, is aggressive and threatening, the Pope came to talk and listen, and was supportive. This is an example of how the international community should act.
And if the West wants to maintain any influence with the Myanmar leaders — which it is in danger of losing — adopting the Pope’s approach would be more helpful, and may even be more beneficial in solving the dilemmas in Rakhine.
Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post