As Pope Francis returns to the Vatican following a trip to Burma and Bangladesh, he has been met with both praise and criticism for how he addressed the plight of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya, who faced a horrific military campaign that drove over 600,000 out of Burma and into refugee camps in Bangladesh. The pope’s words and actions in Burma were calculated, perhaps too much so, and sought to inspire compassion while also remaining pragmatic and protecting the Christians also persecuted inside of the country. Then while he was in Bangladesh his humanity was on full display as he spoke without restraint, saying “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.” Viewing these trips separately we can see the flaws and achievements of each visit, but perhaps it is better to view Pope Francis’ trip as a whole and difficult task of balancing compassion and practicality while also ensuring the world resoundingly heard of the persecution against the Rohingya.
The bulk of the criticism Pope Francis faced was due to the fact that while in Burma he did not use the word “Rohingya”, and in many ways the refusal to use this word plays into the Burmese Military’s propaganda of erasure and disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, who are not recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar and are denied citizenship. While it may be that Pope Francis chose not to use this word to avoid offending the Burmese Government, there seems to be more to the decision than this. Most likely he acted upon the advice of local clergy and Catholic civilians, who themselves likely feel at risk of worsening persecution by the Burmese authorities. As a religious leader the Pope is obligated to protect those of his faith, and navigating how to do so is an unenviable task in times of conflict. While we may find his decision to be disappointing, we should not consider it to have been entirely callous.
At the same time, it is important to note that the clergy in Burma are not themselves immune to the kinds of bigotry widely held throughout the country, and it is regrettable that this seems to have also influenced the decision not to use the word “Rohingya”. Unfortunately advice that may have seemed practical on the surface, might also have been an attempt to legitimise the dispossession of the Rohingya, while echoing sentiments spread by the same military who committed so many atrocities against them. It is this attempt to accommodate prejudices veiled as sensitivities that may have led the Pope to vaguely address the persecution against the ethnic minorities of the country, but caused him to miss an opportunity to fulfill the religious duty all faithful have to speak truth to power.
The Pope’s visit to Bangladesh immediately after his trip to Burma was one of far greater impact. He highlighted the failures of the world and the needs of the displaced. While speaking to refugees he not only called them “Rohingya” but asked for forgiveness. He came as a man of humility and respect, and as Muslims we admire this greatly. If there was failure in Burma, then truly there was redemption in Bangladesh, and among the faithful there is no greater redemption than compassion.
Yet, when analysing Pope Francis’ trip and words, the temptation is to loose sight of the suffering of the Rohingya and its causes. Ultimately the Burmese Military is responsible for every abuse and atrocity they have committed and the Burmese Government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, has been complicit in enabling them. As analysts search recent months to explain what happened, it becomes easy to forget this problem is decades old, with several military campaigns against the Rohingya, the gradual stripping of rights and citizenship and countless human rights violations spanning generations, all of which living with trauma beyond what the outside world could understand. Meeting these problems with inaction, or at worst indifference, has been the standard response from the world and it has made all of us complicit as well.
While the Pope’s visit drew questions of complicity, it also reminded us how much power compassion can have to change the world. We are reminded to speak truth to power in his missteps, but we were also reminded to live humbly before our failures for those most in need. If compassion has any power to redeem us for our failures, there is no group more deserving of it than the Rohingya. If the world has been complicit in their suffering, then more than ever it is the responsibility to correct it, lest we continue to enable it. As the political world struggles to find a solution, it may be wise in this case to follow the lead of the faithful, and to seek solutions which begin humility and humanity. From this perhaps finally the Rohingya can live in a world as full citizens, without fear or suffering and given the same rights God intended to bestow upon all of us from birth.