Advisers who told Pope Francis not to mention Rohingya 'violated our human rights', says Burmese activist

Human Rights Watch says pontiff missed 'important opportunity' to raise international concerns in Burma. But a leading Rohingya blogger tells The Independent the blame does not lie with Francis himself

Sally Hayden
Tuesday 28 November 2017 17:32 GMT
Pope Francis is welcomed to Burma
Pope Francis is welcomed to Burma (AP)

Pope Francis should not be blamed for his failure to mention human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims during the keynote speech of his trip to Burma, a leading activist in the country has said.

International rights groups said the pontiff had “missed an opportunity” to raise international concerns and that it was “disappointing” he chose not to mention the Rohingya by name as he appeared alongside Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw.

But Nay San Lwin, who has run a website called Rohingya Blogger since 2005, said it was the fault of those who advised Pope Francis on his conduct.

“The Pope is an amazing person,” Mr Nay told The Independent from Bangladesh. “If I have to blame someone I would blame Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo... In my opinion Charles Maung Bo violated the basic human rights.”

Pope Francis should “condemn the ongoing genocide”, Mr Nay said. In his speech, the Pope called on the government in general terms to “respect each group and its identity”. “Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building,” he said.

Mr Nay also noted that Burmese military chief Aung Hlaing “said they don’t discriminate (against) anyone base on religion”. Mr Nay said: “That was a lie. Rohingya and other Muslim minorities have been discriminated (against) for decades.”

Refugees continue to flee to Bangladesh, which has seen an influx of almost 700,000 refugees since 25 August, when Burmese security forces began a campaign against Rohingya villages.

The country’s military has insisted it is conducting a counter-insurgency clearance operation that was provoked by Rohingya militants’ synchronised attacks on 30 security posts in the northern part of Rakhine State.

The response has been almost universally condemned by the international community.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in September that ethnic cleansing is taking place in Burma, leading to a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation for the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Burma rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use, with most people instead referring to the Muslim minority in Rakhine State as illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Pope had used the word in two appeals from the Vatican this year.

But, before the diplomatically risky trip, his advisers recommended that he not use it in Burma, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country’s military and government against minority Christians.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, accused the pontiff of missing “an important opportunity to speak truth to power, and publicly refute the unconscionable pressure by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military to deny the Rohingya their identity”.

“The fact that the word ‘Rohingya’ is so contentious shows the lengths to which Burma has gone to demonise a desperately poor and repressed religious minority.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Aguirre, a former legal adviser to the International Commission of Jurists in Myanmar, said Pope Francis was slightly more sympathetic.

The pontiff was “damned if he did and damned if he did not say the word Rohingya,” he told the The Independent. “Although it is disappointing that he did not refer to the Rohingya by name, his visit brought attention to the human rights violations against them.”

He said it’s is up to the “diplomats in Yangon, the international community and especially neighbouring countries to use their influence with the government to halt violations of human rights and protect minorities in Burma”.

“Most of all, national leadership is required; Burma’s public intellectuals, religious leaders and voices from civil society need to promote a more inclusive, tolerant version of a national identity that respects human rights.”

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