Pope heads to Myanmar, Bangladesh

File picture of Myanmar state Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi meeting Pope Francis in Vatican City. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Myanmar (Burma) Nov 21, 2017, 03.27 AM (IST)

Myanmar's new leader forged diplomatic ties with the Vatican in May, but little did anyone know that six months down the line, those new relations would be the source of tension and international attention.

Pope Francis is due to make his first-ever visit to Myanmar and will be meeting State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, senior officials and the Catholic community amid a refugee crisis which has seen more than 600,000 Rohingyas fled across the border into Bangladesh since an August attack.

Given the sensitivity of the issue, Francis' trip is expected to gain much limelight on what he chooses to do or say.

"So, the Pope is not going to hold back on saying what he feels and what he thinks. But on the other hand, he doesn't then want his presence in Myanmar to create difficulties for the people themselves, in this case, specifically for the Rohingya," said Reuters' Vatican correspondent, Philip Pullella, adding that the Pope must tread carefully to make sure he does not upset relations between the Holy-See and Myanmar.

Pullella said the Pope has been advised by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, to avoid using the term "Rohingya" while in Myanmar. Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar rejects the term "Rohingya" and does not recognise them as citizens nor as an ethnic group in their own right.

The Pope, a less predictable figure than his predecessors, has used the term "Rohingya" before to address the Muslim minority, which is also widely used by the international community such as the United Nations and the United States.

Roman Catholics make up a tiny minority in Myanmar of around 700,000 from among a population of more than 51 million.

Meanwhile, in Cox's Bazar the Pope is literally unknown. The hundreds of thousands of refugees have little information or interest in the inter-faith diplomacy going on in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Their main concerns are getting enough food for the day as their numbers continue to grow and as more make the perilous journey to cross the border.