Although Pope Francis’ expected late November visit to Myanmar has not been officially announced, it has already enflamed religious and ethnic tension.
Buddhist nationalist groups have warned the pontiff against using it to champion the case of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Rakhine State that many Buddhists insist are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Reuters reported this week that residents, aid workers and monitors were saying Muslims in the Rakhine village of Zay Di Pyin had been blocked from going to work or fetching food and water for the last three weeks, although a small number had been allowed through the blockade to buy provisions on Tuesday.
“There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false,” said Ashin Wirathu, leader of the nationalist Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha, and sometimes called the “Buddhist Bin Laden”. He said he viewed the pope’s expected visit as “political instigation”.
Increased tensions in Rakhine State have raised fears of a repeat of the communal violence that broke out in the state capital, Sittwe, in 2012, leading to the deaths of an estimated 200 people and displacement of around 140,000 residents, mostly Rohingya.
Francis has previously expressed concern for the plight of the Rohingya, often called “Bengalis” by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, implying they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
In February, Francis criticised Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya. “They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,’’ he said at the Vatican.
In June, the Nay Pyi Taw government said it would refuse to grant visas to three United Nations-backed observers who planned to conduct a human rights fact-finding mission on the circumstances of violence against civilians in Rakhine State and other border areas.
“The concern in [the village of] Zay Di Pyin is that this could escalate into violence between the two communities,” said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya monitoring group.
It is hoped by some that the pope can spread a message of reconciliation.
“The pope, as a world religious and spiritual leader, has the potential to speak well in this situation” and win the trust of both communities, said Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide who has written several books on Myanmar.
“But there is a potential for a negative action from groups like Ma Ba Tha,” Rogers added. “And what scale that will be really remains to be seen.”
Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State. Picture credit: Wikimedia