Pope Francis defends avoiding the term ‘Rohingya’

What happened?

Pope Francis was criticised for avoiding the term “Rohingya” while in Burma. He told reporters on his flight home that his priority was to ensure his message was heard.

“I knew that if, in an official speech, I would have used the word, they would close the door in my face,” he said. He did use the R-word later on in his trip when meeting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Burmese people do not recognise the term as they see Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bengal.

What commentators are saying

Associated Press quoted an official from Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, who said: “Rohingya have been stripped of so many things, but their name should never be one of them.” The AP report, picked up widely by the world’s media, also quoted a Rohingya, Kyaw Naing, who said: “He is the holiest man in the world but it’s so sad to see that even the holiest man cannot call our identity.” Martin Gak, religious affairs correspondent of the Deutsche Welle, defended Francis, saying his avoidance of confrontation (“the political pleasure of denunciation”), had brought success in the past, notably with Cuba. The Pope was criticised during that visit for not speaking out against the regime, but later played a pivotal role in re-establishing relations between the communist island and the United States.

What the Burmese are saying

The Pope provoked anger from some Burmese when he used the R-word in Bangladesh. The AFP news agency quoted Facebook user Aung Soe Lin, who said Francis was “like a lizard whose colour has changed because of the weather”. Another Facebook user, Soe Soe, called him a “salesman” for his use of different words. Others were more positive. Maung Thway Chun, chairman of the 135 Patriots Party, said his avoidance of the term “means he respects Myanmar people”, adding: “He even did not use the word many times in Bangladesh… I think he said it once, just to comfort human rights organisations.” Larry Jagan, writing for the Bangkok Post, hailed the visit as a “diplomatic triumph”, quoting Maung Maung Lay, an industry rep, who said the Pope’s message was “like a beacon”, even for non-Christians.

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