Pope Francis met Myanmar’s powerful army chief yesterday, at the start of a highly sensitive trip to the majority-Buddhist country which is under fire internationally for a brutal army crackdown that sparked an exodus of Rohingya Muslims.
The 80-year-old pope, the first to travel to Myanmar, received Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the archbishop’s residence in Yangon, where the pontiff will stay during his visit.
The UN and US accuse the army, which the general controls, of ethnic cleansing in a campaign that has driven more than 620 000 Rohingya from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh since August this year.
The military crackdown on the reviled Rohingya looms large over the pope’s four-day trip.
He has called the Rohingya his brothers and sisters, in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.
During a 15-minute meeting, the pontiff and the army chief spoke of the “great responsibility of the country’s authorities in this moment of transition”, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.
Myanmar was ruled by a junta for five decades until a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi came to power last year.
Earlier yesterday, Francis was welcomed at Yangon’s airport by children from different minority groups in bright bejewelled clothes who gave him flowers and received a papal embrace in return.
Nuns in white habits were among devotees waving flags as his motorcade swept past. “I saw the pope. I was so pleased, I cried!” Christina Aye Aye Sein, 48, said after the pope’s convoy received a warm but modest welcome.
“His face looked very lovely and sweet. He is coming here for peace.”
Myanmar’s estimated 700 000 Catholics make up just more than 1% of the country’s 51 million people.
But about 200 000 Catholics are pouring into Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon before a huge open-air mass tomorrow.
The pope’s speeches will be scrutinised by Buddhist hardliners for any mention of the word “Rohingya’, an incendiary term in a country where the Muslim group is reviled and labelled “Bengalis” – alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Today, Francis will meet Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose lustre has faded because of her failure to speak up publicly for the Rohingya. He will hold two masses in Yangon. Francis will travel on to Bangladesh on Thursday, where he will meet a group of Rohingya Muslims in the capital Dhaka. – AFP