In a meeting Thursday between Pope Francis and Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, the two cemented their diplomatic relationship, agreeing to send ambassadors to each other's countries.
“The Holy See and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, keen to promote bonds of mutual friendship, have jointly agreed to establish diplomatic relations at the level of Apostolic Nunciature, on behalf of the Holy See, and Embassy, on the part of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese diplomat, politician and author who currently serves as the State Counsellor and Foreign Minister of Myanmar.
Before her rise to power, she spent much of her career under house arrest due to her push for human rights and democracy, which contradicted the military rule at the time.
She first met with Pope Francis in October 2013 when she came to Rome to pick up an honorary citizenship she'd been awarded in 1994 but hadn't been able to retrieve.
Just two years later, Pope Francis appointed Myanmar's first-ever cardinal, Charles Bo, in a clear show if his respect for the country and his preference for the peripheries.
The move to officially establish diplomatic ties comes just two months Myanmar's parliament voted in March to make their country the 183rd nation to enjoy diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
The proposal from the Vatican was postponed in February by the nuncio to Thailand, Archbishop Paul Tsang-in Nam, who also acts as a delegate to Myanmar. He then held a meeting with Cardinal Bo and Aung San Suu Kyi, resulting in the March announcement.
While Aung San Suu Kyi and Pope Francis' meeting this morning likely focused on strengthening their diplomatic ties, mention was also likely made on the part of the Pope of the persecuted Rohingya minority, which he has spoken out on often.
Rohingya people are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group largely from the Rakhine state of Burma, in west Myanmar. Since clashes began in 2012 between the state's Buddhist community and the long-oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, some 125,000 Rohingya have been displaced, while more than 100,000 have fled Myanmar by sea.
In order to escape forced segregation from the rest of the population inside rural ghettos, many of the Rohingya – who are not recognized by the government as a legitimate ethnic group or as citizens of Myanmar – have made the perilous journey at sea in hopes of evading persecution.
In 2015, a number of Rohingya people – estimated to be in the thousands – were stranded at sea in boats with dwindling supplies while Southeastern nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refuse to take them in.
However, in recent months tens of thousands have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. The horrifying stories recounted by the Rohingya include harrowing tales of rapes, killings and the burning of their houses.
According to BBC News, despite claims of a genocide, a special government-appointed committee in Myanmar formed in January has investigated the situation, but found no evidence to support the allegations.
In Bangladesh, however, the Rohingya have had little relief, since they are not recognized as refugees in the country. Since October, many who fled to Bangladesh have been detained and forced to return to the neighboring Rakhine state.
Pope Francis first brought up the plight of the Rohingya people during an audience in 2015 with more than 1,500 members of the International Eucharistic Youth Movement.
“Let’s think of those brothers of ours of the Rohingya,” he said. “They were chased from one country and from another and from another. When they arrived at a port or a beach, they gave them a bit of water or a bit to eat and were there chased out to the sea.”
This, he told the youth, “is called killing. It’s true. If I have a conflict with you and I kill you, its war.”
He brought them up again a month later in an interview with a Portuguese radio station, and he has consistently spoken out on behalf of the Rohingya in Angelus addresses, daily Masses or general audiences.
Most recently, in his Feb. 8 general audience the Pope asked pilgrims to pray with him “for our brother and sister Rohingya. They were driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another and no one wants them.”
“They are good people, peaceful people, they aren’t Christians, but they are good. They are our brothers and sisters. And they have suffered for years,” he said, noting that often members of the ethnic minority have been “tortured and killed” simply for carrying forward their traditions and Muslim faith.
He then led pilgrims in praying an “Our Father” for the Rohingya, asking afterward St. Josephine Bakhita, herself a former salve, to intercede.
So while the official establishment of diplomatic relations is a major step in terms of strengthening relations between the Holy See and Myanmar, there are murky waters that still need to be tread.
(c) 2017 catholic News Agency