The Pope is in Myanmar until November 30
After that he heads to Bangladesh, where he is expected to meet with some Rohingya refugees
The general many hold responsible for the Rohingya refugee crisis has told Pope Francis there is “no religious discrimination” in Myanmar.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said all faiths in the country are able to worship freely following a meeting Monday with Francis after the pontiff arrived in Myanmar for his first trip to the staunchly Buddhist country.
“The Tatmadaw is making efforts to restore peace, and wish of all Tatmadawmen is to ensure peace of the nation,” he said, using an alternative name for the country’s army. “Myanmar has no discrimination among the ethnics.”
The Pope met Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals in the former capital Yangon for a 15-minute “courtesy visit” followed by an exchange of gifts, according to Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.
The Myanmar military has been accused of pursuing a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya – a largely Muslim ethnic minority not officially recognized by Myanmar – following an outbreak of violence in August between soldiers and armed militants in Rakhine State, a poor region in the country’s west.
Since the crisis began, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to neighboring Bangladesh, where the Pope will travel later this week. Francis has previously decried violence against the Rohingya, calling them his persecuted “brothers and sisters.”
The Myanmar government has repeatedly denied allegations they are conducting a systematic campaign of violence against the Rohingya, blaming the widespread damage on a militant insurgency.
However, the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations have all accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and the refugees share similar stories of killings, rape and torched villages.
Myanmar’s military still holds the balance of power in the country after its transition to partial democracy in 2015. The army oversees security operations, including those blamed for sparking the exodus of refugees from Rakhine.
Under the country’s constitution – crafted by a military junta before it handed over power to a mostly-civilian government – the generals still control the security forces, the police and key cabinet positions in the government.
While former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s de-facto head of state, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing does not answer to her and “can’t be fired,” Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told CNN in September.
“If the military has to choose between control and international respect, they will choose control. It’s a question of how much they’re willing to give up. We haven’t seen much evidence that they’re willing to give up anything beyond what they gave up in the 2008 constitution.”
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, wrote earlier this year that Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing “is the biggest obstacle to improving human rights, democratic reform, peace, modernization, and improving health and education in (Myanmar).”
“The current approach of the international community towards the military has been one of soft engagement, hoping they will have a gradual epiphany and realise it is in their own self-interest to agree to further reform. It amounts to a fingers crossed approach that if we are nice to the (Myanmar) military, they will suddenly come around,” he said.
High stakes trip
While the Pope has spoken out in support of the Rohingya in the past, it remains to be seen how much he will press the matter while in Myanmar.
Even using the word Rohingya is controversial: the Myanmar government and much of the population regard the ethnic minority as illegal Bengali immigrants, and refuse to call them “Rohingya,” despite many being able to trace their roots in the country back centuries.
Experts warn that this trip will require the Pope balance a uniquely complicated set of humanitarian, diplomatic and religious questions. Even one of his own cardinals has advised the Pope to steer clear of the word Rohingya for fear of stalling his message of reconciliation before it has even begun.
The Vatican has emphasized that Francis’ time in Myanmar is a routine papal visit – the first ever to the country – and not focused on the Rohingya issue.
“As the Pope said ahead of the trip, he will bring a message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation,” spokesman Burke said last week.
While Francis’s stance on the Rohingya crisis will likely dominate headlines, he is also expected to push for greater rights for the several million members of Myanmar’s Christian minority.
CNN’s Ben Westcott and Jamie Tarabay contributed reporting.