YANGON, Myanmar (AP) - Pope Francis opened a diplomatically fraught trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh on Monday by immediately diving into the crisis over Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims: He met with the country’s military chief, even before beginning the official program of his trip.
The Vatican didn’t provide details of the contents of Francis’ 15-minute “courtesy visit” with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and three officials from the bureau of special operations. It took place in the residence of the archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Bo, who has resisted international condemnation of the military’s operations against Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.”
The general is in charge of security in Rakhine state, where the military’s “clearance operations” against the Muslim minority have sent more than 620,000 Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. Refugees there have told of entire villages being burned and women and girls being raped.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said only that “They spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s office said in a statement on Facebook that he is willing to have “interfaith peace, unity and justice.” The general added that there was no religious or ethnic persecution or discrimination in Myanmar, and that the government allowed different faith groups to have freedom of worship.
Rohingya Muslims have faced state-supported discrimination in predominantly Buddhist country for decades. Though members of the ethnic minority first arrived generations ago, Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights.