Genocide next door and the pontiff's moral dilemma | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 06, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:41 AM, December 06, 2017

Genocide next door and the pontiff's moral dilemma

The Pope has returned after two significant visits to the region. The countries he graced his visit with are the ones that are in international limelight and for the same reason—Rohingyas. The visit of His Holiness to Myanmar, we believe, was prompted mainly by the plight of the Rohingyas. While his visit to Bangladesh was scheduled well before the start of the latest round of influx of Rohingyas in August, we in particular looked forward to his visit, given the moral authority he commands.

It was therefore a bit disappointing that the Pope during his visit in Myanmar deliberately avoided the term “Rohingya” in referring to the persecution and the victims. It is mystifying that His Holiness would avoid the name of an ethnic community that it is known by across the world! While the Pope has defended his position, the rationale to me is not convincing, and I say this with all the deference to the highest pontiff of the Catholic community. 

The world looks up to the Pope as a moral voice against injustice, for the rights of the downtrodden and the marginalised, for the stigmatised and for those that face the prospect of veritable extermination. And we in Bangladesh had hoped the Pope would bring to bear on the military machine of Myanmar the force of his moral authority to stop the injustices on the Rohingyas in northern Rakhine.

During his Myanmar visit His Holiness did call for every section of the people to be given their rights and to live in safety. And he referred to the violence but only obliquely. He said everything except the word “Rohingya”. As much as one can glean from the reported statement, his tone was more conciliatory than necessary to drive his point home to the Myanmar military.

One understands too that his position was tailored on the counsel of the local Catholic prelate in Myanmar; it was advised, using the word would be “undiplomatic” lest the word “Rohingya” throws up uncomfortable situation for the Pope, and perhaps even, given the militant nature that some monks in Myanmar have assumed, cause the local Christians to be subjected to the same form of violence that the Rohingyas have been, and continue to be. It was disappointing, to say the least, that the Pope would choose to be politically, rather than morally, correct. The Pope's moral standing, one regrets to say, was subjugated to politics.

The Pope cannot be unaware of the genocide of the Rohingyas. Political correctness in such a situation saps one of the moral weight, particularly of a person who occupies the highest pedestal of moral authority. It doesn't help to stem the tide of violence either. The lives and limbs of an ethnic minority mattered little, in the estimate of his advisers, compared to the ire of the government of Myanmar that political “incorrectness” might have incurred.

Reportedly, the Pope met with the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces—the very force that the world accuses of indulging in genocide but what it euphemistically terms “ethnic cleansing”—without mentioning the violence in Rakhine. Reportedly, that meeting was a result of a last-minute request by the army. 

His Holiness also graced the monks with his audience—some of whom have been inciting Islamophobia and violence against the Rohingyas and in whom the Myanmar military has found a willing accomplice. Some Rohingya refugees were presented to His Holiness during his visit to Bangladesh, and one wonders what he would have replied if any among them had asked whether he visited their homestead (very few Rohingyas are left alive in Rakhine anyway) in Myanmar to see the reason why they are here.

In the past the Pope had spoken up strongly for the Muslims against unjust criticism directed against the entire community by some quarters. The painful truth is, not mentioning the word “Rohingya” or not referring to their situation directly validates the wrongful position of the Myanmar government on Rohingyas who are referred to, deliberately, in the most corrupt form of the word “Bengali”. But this is a position only recently acquired and goes back to 1962 only to the days of Ne Win.

Avoiding saying the word doesn't at all help keep the “dialogue open” as the Pope thinks it would. And to think that circuitous ways of conveying a message to a criminal enterprise like the Myanmar government would “convey the message” is only a pious hope since they have so far cared very little about the global outrage and direct criticism heaped on them by the world community.

One agrees with the Vatican that “people are not expected to solve impossible problems” and we do not expect the Pope to do so either. But one had hoped that he would have the moral courage to speak truth to power. 

What was needed is the utterance of the two words “genocide” and “Rohingya”—today both have acquired synonymy. The world knows but would not utter the word “genocide” (of course there is the only exception—Canada). One wonders why. The world was too late in acknowledging Rwanda killings as genocide and look what happened. By all accounts, and the latest New York Times report confirms that apprehension, the Myanmar government is well on its way to ensure that northern Rakhine is shorn of all Rohingyas.

The Rohingyas are suffering from double jeopardy. They have the misfortune of being both Muslim and labelled as Bengalis. There is always the danger of linking religion to the Rohingya issue, but one wonders whether the Pope would have chosen realpolitik over moral correctness had the Rohingyas been of a different creed or race.

Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.

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