Man in popes garment holding holy bible. Adobe RGB for better color reproduction.Photo: iStock
Man in popes garment holding holy bible. Adobe RGB for better color reproduction.Photo: iStock

When Pope Francis visits Myanmar on Monday the stakes will be extremely high, and some suggest he should be advised against going. However, he is probably the international leader best-suited to visit the Southeast Asian nation at this time.

Without a doubt, the three-day trip will likely be the most challenging foreign visit of the 80-year-old’s papacy. It comes amid widespread international condemnation of the horrendous mistreatment of minority Muslims in the Buddhist majority country’s Rakhine state.

On August 28, a few days after a huge campaign against the religious minority was launched, forcing them to flee en masse to neighboring Bangladesh, Pope Francis made a plea for an end to what he called “the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters.”

A top United Nations human rights official described the ordeal that the minority Rohingya have endured, including murder, rape and torture, as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

In contrast, for Myanmar’s military, government and its majority Buddhist population, there exists no such Rohingya community, and they deny that they have been subjected to ethnic cleansing or persecution.

The word “Rohingya” is so taboo in the country, whose official name remains problematic (as it’s still referred to by some as Burma), that some of the Argentinian pope’s advisers told him not to utter it during his tour.

Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s first and sole cardinal, publicly said if the bishop of Rome used the “R” word, it could infuriate the military and Buddhist nationalists, prompting them to turn their anger on the Christian minority.

That’s why some prominent Catholics have suggested he shouldn’t risk going to the country. Father Thomas Reese, an American author and a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote on November 20 that by going to Myanmar the pontiff “risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country.”

Undoubtedly, the trip is very problematic and potentially risky. That said, it could bring more good than bad to the host country and its people – including Muslim and Christian minorities.

Ahead of his visit, the head of the Catholic Church sent a message to the people of Myanmar. In it, he said, “I am coming to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” which is “a message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace” and “teaches the dignity of every man and woman and commands us to open our hearts to others, especially the poor and those in need.”

That’s probably all that this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country needs to embrace most if it wishes to overcome the many challenges and turmoil it’s facing and build a better, more peaceful, harmonious and prosperous future.

The pope also said he wished to visit Myanmar “in a spirit of respect and encouragement.” Again, perhaps there is nobody better than him to go to the country with such a positive message and spirit at this sensitive and crucial time.

Pope Francis is widely seen as a humble and gentle man, an ardent advocate for the poor and downtrodden, and a great champion for interreligious dialogue, reconciliation, cooperation and peace

Pope Francis is widely seen as a humble and gentle man, an ardent advocate for the poor and downtrodden, and a great champion for interreligious dialogue, reconciliation, cooperation and peace.

At an audience with journalists on March 16, 2013, three days after being selected as the Church’s 266th pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio revealed that he took his papal name after Saint Francis of Assisi because the medieval saint was “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.”

This 13th-century saint had a famous peace prayer, now widely known as a Christian prayer for peace. Like his patron saint, Pope Francis will come to Myanmar – and then to neighboring Bangladesh where he will meet Rohingya Muslim refugees – as an instrument of peace. He’ll seek to sow love where there’s hatred, pardon where there’s injury, hope where there’s despair and joy where there’s sadness.

He’ll also implicitly or explicitly encourage all those who he meets – including Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the army, General Min Aung Hlaing, and religious leaders – to become such an instrument of peace.

Also guided by Saint Francis’s prayer, he may not go to Myanmar and Bangladesh to be consoled, understood and loved, but to console, understand and love. Thus, he probably doesn’t bother about his reputation being jeopardized.

In his piece, Father Thomas Reese, like Pope Francis, a Jesuit (a member of the Society of Jesus, a religious order), also said, “Myanmar is a mess.” Many would agree with such an observation because, in addition to the Rohingya crisis, the country’s current path to democracy is very bumpy and chaotic.

Yet, the nation of 51 million people needs international support – not isolation – to protect and enhance its hard-fought and fragile democracy, especially at a time when authoritarianism is tightening its grip in many regional countries, such as Cambodia.

As the head of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide and with his international status, through this visit – the first by a pope and his first to a Buddhist majority – Pope Francis could help Myanmar advance its democratization process.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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