Members of the honour guard put on their uniforms before the arrival of Pope Francis at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi
November 28, 2017
By Philip Pullella and Thu Thu Aung
NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – Pope Francis held talks with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, the second day of a visit fraught with tension after the United States accused the Southeast Asian nation of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.
The pope earlier met leaders of several faiths in the majority-Buddhist country, calling for “unity in diversity” but making no mention of the Rohingya who have fled en masse to Bangladesh since a military crackdown began three months ago.
The leader of the Roman Catholic church will also travel to Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed “crimes against humanity”.
Myanmar’s army has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it.
“Unity is always a product of diversity,” Francis told leaders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian faiths in the city of Yangon, according to Vatican officials who gave a briefing on the 40-minute meeting.
“Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share. And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.”
Aye Lwin, a prominent Muslim leader who was at the meeting, told Reuters he had asked the pope to appeal to Myanmar’s political leaders “to rescue the religion that we cherish, which could be hijacked by a hidden agenda”.
Only about 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them have traveled from far and wide to see him and more than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Francis will say in Yangon on Wednesday.
TENSION OVER THE WORD ‘ROHINGYA’
The pope later flew to the capital, Naypyitaw, where he met President Htin Kyaw, writing in the guest book at the presidential palace: “On all the beloved people in Myanmar, I invoke the divine blessings of justice, peace and unity.”
He then went into talks with Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and champion of democracy who has faced criticism from around the globe because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military.
Both Francis and Suu Kyi were due to make speeches later.
His trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned Francis against even saying the word “Rohingya”, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country’s military and government against minority Christians.
The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh began after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions for “horrendous atrocities”.
Myanmar’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use.
Many people in Myanmar instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip.
Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi.
The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.
A hardline group of Buddhist monks, previously known as Ma Ba Tha, said on Monday it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of “a response” if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.
(Additional reporting by Yimou Lee; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Robert Birsel)