The dusts of Suhrawardy Udyan have settled down by now. The much-talked-about papal visit to Burma and Bangladesh has come to an end. The visit created quite a bit of furore both at home and abroad. The Vatican staunchly defended its decision of not allowing the Pope to utter the word “Rohingya” during his Burma visit. Its spokesperson claimed that “the Pope is not going to lose any moral authority” and insisted that “still stands (intact).” Detractors, however, felt the Pope fell short of what was expected of him, given his strong track record of advocating for refugees and migrants. They held that “there should be nothing controversial about the Pope identifying people by the name they want” (Fortify Rights) and felt betrayed that he missed out “an unparalleled opportunity” to bring light to the indiscriminate violence against the Rohingya.
Terming or not terming a group by its preferred self-identification tag is not an issue of simple semantics. Intrinsically tied to this is the question of recognition of a group's right to self-identification. An important component of Burma's ruling elite's genocidal agenda against the Rohingya is the denial of the latter's self-identity. Since the military takeover in 1962, the State in Burma launched a systematic campaign to destroy the Rohingya identity. Despite the existence of valid historical records and official documentation of the existence of the Rohingya community in Arakan for centuries, the Burmese authorities deviously present them as “illegal migrants” from the region that is currently Bangladesh. Rejecting the Burmese claim that Rohingya are recent arrivals and the Rakhines are original settlers, eminent SOAS historian Michael Charney persuasively establishes “the shared immigrant nature of the entire population of the littoral” known as Arakan. He strongly argues that “No group in Arakan would pass the test as 'indigenous.'”
The Pope's acquiescence to the pressure of the Burmese authorities for denying the use of the term Rohingya was a missed opportunity to condemn the genocidal acts of the Burmese government. His act became a party to the denial of the group identity of a people who are facing an existential threat from a state-sponsored genocidal act. Had the Pope stood his ground, it would have probably encouraged many others to support the rights of the Rohingya. It was a missed opportunity for the Pope “to publicly refute the unconscionable pressure by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military to deny the Rohingya their identity.” (Human Rights Watch)
At a recent RMMRU conference on Ending the Slow Burning Genocide of Rohingya by Myanmar, Rohingya activist Nay San Win reminded, “The term Rohingya is not a racial slur. It is a dignified term for more than two million people who are living across the world.” The then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in 2014 in Naypyidaw, expressed concerns about the welfare of the country's Rohingya Muslims. Ban did so in deference to the international human rights principle of self-identification of groups, and to the obvious dismay of his hosts.
It will be unfair to hold Pope as an individual responsible for this blunder. At a press conference in Yangon held at the end of Pope's visit to the country, Myanmar's Catholic Church's Bishop John Hsane Hgyi suggested that reports of atrocities being committed are not “reliable” or “authoritative” and that those who are criticising Myanmar's response to a complex situation should “go into the field to study the reality and history” to obtain “true news.” Such statements do not help but remind the observers to recall the complicity of the Vatican and other German Churches with the Nazi regime, and to wonder that the corpus of international human rights instruments that have been framed over the last 70 years have had little impact on the institution. The Rohingya episode has again demonstrated that despite their avowed declaration to stand up for the wretched of the earth, when push comes to shove, the institution does not condemn the perpetrators at appropriate moments when it should and such condemnation would wake up the rest of the world to the realities of what is going on.
The papal trip to Burma was conceived in June this year, much before the current wave of atrocities began. As the situation in Arakan deteriorated since August 26, the Vatican secured ample warning about the wanton genocidal acts of the Burmese security forces with active connivance of the Buddhist vigilante groups. One wonders what prompted the minders of the Pope to execute the visit even when the refugees were fleeing violence in Arakan. This visit, as one observer put it, was essentially “wading into a diplomatic and political minefield.” One may recall that Pope Francis in the recent past has publicly denounced “the persecution of Rohingya brothers and sisters” who he said were “tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith.” In the decades ahead, if and when the Vatican releases the documents pertaining to this papal visit, one would get to know whether the Burma visit was the result of internecine conflict within the Vatican establishment to malign an otherwise progressive Pope or was it a collective decision to promote Catholicism in a country where Christianity is the fastest growing faith, according to 2014 Population and Housing Census conducted by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
During the first two days of his visit to Bangladesh marked by formal meetings, the Pope did not utter the term Rohingya. It is only during his meeting with the members of the affected community that he made a reference to Rohingya. The Pope had little to offer to his baffled Rohingya guests. He was visibly moved by the horrific recounting of experiences of the Rohingya families. But it appears even those were not enough for the leader of the planet's 1.6 billion Catholics to unequivocally condemn the genocidal acts of the barbarous Burmese regime. Instead, he begged forgiveness for the rest of the world for turning a blind eye, for dragging its feet and not acting, for not extending its support, for not being tough on Burma and for appearing to give parity to the Rohingya militants' attack on police posts in August with the three-month-long brutal campaign of the Burmese military that had resulted in the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Without extending his support to the demands of the victims for trial of the perpetrators, one wonders what prompted the pontiff to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the architects and executioners of this slow burning genocide when they themselves are celebrating their murderous acts? Surely there is no reason to believe that Gen. Ming Aung Hlaing, the head of the Burmese army and the Butcher of Arakan, broached the idea to the Holy Father when they met in Yangon!
The Rohingya episode drives home the point that despite his efforts in promoting the cause of the underprivileged, his own herd, the Catholics, remain the Pope's priority. In this context, a question raised by the Chicago-based Rohingya Nasir Zakaria – “Is one minority more valuable than another?” – becomes pertinent. The Vatican should learn from the fact that the appeasement policy of Hitler during the World War II did not work. If the genocidal regime in Burma is not effectively resisted, one would not be surprised that in its project to make Burma only for Buddhists the regime will target the Christians and other minorities soon after it accomplishes the current task of annihilating Rohingya. The episode further lays bare the irony that the debate surrounding the Rohingya has reduced to utterances while the entire population in Arakan is facing genocidal extermination. Shame on the international community for failing to acknowledge and decisively act on this slow burning genocide.
C R Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka.