Opinion: Pope Francis shouldn't have said 'Rohingya'

During most of his five-day visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis avoided using the name "Rohingya." Sticking to this middle ground would have been a smart decision, says DW's Rodion Ebbighausen.

What's in a name? A debate over meaning and interpretation is swirling around the Rohingya refugee crisis. Even before he departed for Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis was barraged with recommendations on how he should refer to the ethno-religious group widely known as "Rohingya." But this appellation carries considerable baggage with heavy emotions on each side.

Human Rights | 30.11.2017

Myanmar's government has so far refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingya. It views the estimated 1.1 million people as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar objects to the use of the term "Rohingya" in any UN resolution and says it makes the government's efforts more difficult in addressing the issue.

Ebbighausen Rodion Kommentarbild App

DW's Rodion Ebbighausen

There are a few conflicting sides to this issue. The first camp is the pro-Rohingya faction. Included under this designation is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. This militant Islamist group and its followers claim to "defend and protect" Rohingya. The group is connected with a deadly attack on security forces in Rakhine State on August 25. The overwhelming response from Myanmar's military is what sparked the current refugee crisis.

Another – non-violent – group consists of well-connected and vociferous Rohingya activists, who are conducting a massive media and public relations campaign. In the name of speaking out against what they consider to be genocide, they have not been afraid to publicize what some would consider as "fake news."

Read more:

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh appeal to Pope Francis

Myanmar: Pope urges Buddhist monks to fight 'prejudice'

A third group are the human rights moralists, who are convinced that the Rohingya problem could be solved if principles of universal human rights would just be observed and followed. But this group tends to ignore the historical complexity and depth of the conflict.

All three groups support the Rohingya cause, but each has different means of reaching their goals. Nevertheless, they all called on the pontiff to use the appellation "Rohingya."

Their opponents in the anti-Rohingya faction vehemently oppose the utterance of the term "Rohingya" by the pope. This group includes racists in Myanmar who do not want to accept that the majority of Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for generations. They fear the "Islamization" of Myanmar and the eradication of Buddhist culture. This group is joined by ultra-nationalists in Myanmar, which include many Buddhist monks.

Related Subjects

The anti-Rohingya group incites resentment against Rohingya and some of them say the military action against Rohingya is too lenient. They even consider the terminology "Muslims of Rakhine State" as an imposition, as it requires saying "Muslims" and "Rakhine" in the same breath. In their perspective, the term "Bengalis" would be more appropriate.

Read more:

Opinion: The pope is visiting a minefield in Myanmar

Pope faces tightrope act in Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis

Standing between these two extremes is a third faction that one could call "realists" or "diplomats." They walk a fine line, trying to dispel the stereotype of being Western Rohingya sympathizers while avoiding the resentment of Rohingya-haters in Myanmar.

People in this minority faction include former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the embattled Nobel Prize laureate and civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. By using the very technical terminology "Muslims of Rakhine State," these centrists are choosing a compromise that attempts to leave the door open for all factions in the conflict.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis used the term Rohingya during his visit to Bangladesh on Friday. With this, he is supporting one faction in the conflict and has lent the authority of the Catholic Church for use under their cause.

By compromising, and not using the term "Rohingya," the pontiff could have taken a step toward alleviating factional tension. This chance has been squandered. However, the important thing to remember is that this controversy isn't about designating a group of people as "Rohingya." This is about giving people the chance to live a humane existence regardless of their ethnicity, religion, language, skin color – or name.


Landmark Mass

Pope Francis traveled to Yangon's Kyaikkasan football stadium on Wednesday to celebrate his first public Mass in Myanmar. The pontiff told the crowd of some 150,000 worshippers to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the country's suffering, and instead promote peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.


Meeting the Lady

On Tuesday, the first full day of his Myanmar visit, Pope Francis was in the capital, Naypyidaw, for talks with Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Rights groups had called for him to speak out about the country's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. In a speech, Francis urged "respect for each ethnic group," but did not mention the Rohingya by name.


'United in diversity'

Earlier, Francis met with leaders of Myanmar's different religious communities at the archbishop's residence in Yangon. During the gathering, the pontiff stressed the importance of "unity in diversity."


Roll out the red carpet

Although only 700,000 of Myanmar's 52 million inhabitants are Catholic, that didn't keep thousands of well-wishers from meeting Pope Francis at the airport on Monday and lining the streets of Yangon in order to catch a glimpse of the bishop of Rome.


A cause for celebration

"We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years," one Catholic community leader, who brought 1,800 Christians from the south and west to the country on the long train journey to Yangon, told Reuters news agency.


Minorities greet the pontiff

The pope was greeted by ethnic minorities in traditional dress. About 88 percent of Burmese people identify as Buddhist.


Humanitarian crisis

The government of Myanmar has been accused of "ethnic cleansing" including the widespread murder and rape of Rohingya Muslims in the country's Rakhine state. Once refugees from Bangladesh, the Rohingya have been declared stateless and persecuted by the Myanmar government.


Meeting with the commander

Soon after his arrival on Monday, Pope Francis received a "courtesy visit" from Myanmar's army chief Gerneal Min Aung Hlaing. The Vatican did not provide details about the brief meeting. Myanmar's military has been accused of violent purges of Rohingya villages.


First stop

After Myanmar, the pontiff will head to Bangladesh, where many Rohingya have fled. Some inside the Vatican have said that the trip was arranged too hastily after a visit by the now controversial leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Rome last May.