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Pope arrives in a Myanmar tainted by Rohingya crackdown

Pope Francis was greeted Monday by children dressed in traditional clothing after his arrival in Myanmar.
Pope Francis was greeted Monday by children dressed in traditional clothing after his arrival in Myanmar.VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

YANGON, Myanmar — Pope Francis landed in Myanmar, and in a diplomatic minefield, on Monday.

In his first visit to the country — and his first to any majority-Buddhist nation — the pope met with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, which has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country in what the United States has called a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The pope is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the government, who has been widely criticized as complicit for her silence in the face of the slaughter.


In Myanmar, the pope will seek to strike a careful balance by maintaining his moral authority without endangering his tiny local flock.

The United Nations, the United States, and others have denounced the murder, rape, and pillaging of the Rohingya in western Myanmar, but the pope has been advised by the Roman Catholic Church here not to utter the word Rohingya, for fear of aggravating the situation or of being exploited for domestic politics.

Despite the criticisms of Suu Kyi, the pope’s allies have urged him to lend her his support — and, they hope, political strength — as the country’s best chance to prevent a backslide into absolute rule by the military.

The constitution, written by the military, puts the armed forces out of her control. And the military has enough support in Parliament to prevent any changes that could loosen the grip on power held by Min Aung Hlaing, who has ambitions to run the country.

So for Francis, his first meeting here with the general, which was added at the last minute, might well be the more important one.

“It’s smart to meet the commander in chief first, because he is very important and the principal person to solve this challenge facing our country,” said Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city.


According to the Vatican, the meeting with the general and top commanders from the Bureau of Special Operations lasted about 15 minutes and was a “courtesy visit” at the residence of the local archbishop, where Francis is staying.

Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman who is traveling with the pope, said they had discussed “the great responsibility of the country’s authorities in this moment of transition.”

The pope then gave the general a medallion commemorating his visit. The general gave the pope an ornate rice bowl and a harp in the shape of a goat.

The timing of the meeting suggested that the pope was mindful of the egos and agendas that he must navigate without making a misstep that could endanger Myanmar’s 700,000 Catholics, who make up about 1.3 percent of the population.

Upon arriving in Yangon, Francis was greeted on the tarmac by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the city’s archbishop, followed by local bishops and a delegation of children in traditional clothing.

As he left Yangon Airport in a Toyota Mark II Grande sedan, Francis rolled down the window to wave at hundreds more children cheering, “Viva, Papa” next to curious backpackers and wary security officials.

The surrounding streets were lined with young people in white T-shirts and yellow hats with the trip’s official emblem, a heart under the motto “Missionary of Love and Peace.” Some waved Vatican flags and had its yellow-and-white colors painted on their cheeks.


Those crowds thinned, though signs on lampposts extended “A Heartiest Welcome to the Holy Father Pope Francis, Missionary of Love and Peace.”

In a certain sense, the trip may be a needless headache for Francis.

After a visit to India fell through, Myanmar filled a hole in the pope’s schedule. The trip was meant in part to celebrate and solidify the diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Myanmar established during Suu Kyi’s stop at the Holy See in May.

As the onetime darling of the humanitarian community and democracy activists, Suu Kyi was already starting to come under criticism at that time for the poor treatment of the Rohingya. The situation has since deteriorated, and her reputation has sunk as she has failed to confront a military crackdown on the Rohingya — or “those who have crossed over to Bangladesh,” as she has called them.

The church’s leaders in Myanmar, especially Bo, whom Francis elevated in 2015, have argued that the pope must invest in Suu Kyi, as she is perhaps the country’s last, and best, chance to proceed on a road to democracy and the protection of civil rights.