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The pope and the word Rohingya

Martin Gak
Martin Gak
December 4, 2017

The pope's recent Asia trip highlighted his approach to resolving conflict through dialogue. Avoiding confrontation has been a policy staple, and though it hasn't satisfied everyone, it has yielded remarkable results.

Pope Francis meets a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Image: Reuters/D. Sagolj

Judging by the way Western media covered the visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar and Bangladesh last week, one could be forgiven for supposing that the political crisis affecting the Muslim minority in Myanmar is merely a semantic one.

The main charge — and indeed it was mostly one single charge — raised against the pope by many journalists following his trip from afar was that he had been unwilling to use the word Rohingya.

Martin Gak is DW's religious affairs correspondent
Martin Gak is DW's religious affairs correspondent

But even if, by and large, the West has become accustomed to taking the right to a name of one's own choosing as a fundamental one, it should be quite evident to anyone following the developments in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state that, in the face of what the UN human rights chief has called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," the focus on semantic rights is, at best, tone-deaf.

Reports of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya minority date back to the late 1970s. But over the past year-and-a-half, a catalogue of horrors that includes accounts of massacres, mass rapes, forced sex trade and mass displacement have emerged, painting a truly horrific picture which makes the discussion of names look like little more than a first-world problem.

Given the enormity of the alleged crimes and the magnitude of the unfolding crisis, it seems understandable that the Vatican will not see the right-to-be-named as a diplomatic priority, and with good reason. The use of the word Rohingya — a term reviled by the vast majority of the Myanmar population — as demanded in the editorial pages of US and European news outlets and by NGOs, would have openly antagonized a negotiation partner who controls the fate of the Rohingya minority. Francis himself explained that by using the word, he would "have thrown the door in a face" of the people that he needed most to reach.

Francis diplomacy

Speaking with journalists, the pope gave perhaps one of his clearest statements about the Vatican's diplomatic approach to conflict mediation. "For me, the most important thing is that the message arrives and for this I seek to say the things, step by step, and listen to the answers," he said Saturday. "It is true that I haven't, let's say it this way, had the pleasure of throwing the door in a face, publicly, a denouncement, but I did have the satisfaction of dialoguing."

And indeed, the several diplomatic successes of the Vatican on the geopolitical stage may be precisely the result of shunning the spotlight and eluding the political pleasure of denunciation.

For instance, when the pope visited Cuba in 2015, much of the media — especially in the US — expressed displeasure at what was seen as Francis' support of a repressive regime. Yet the will to forego the moral pleasure of condemning the Cuban government and the associated accolades from conservatives translated into what many now understand to be the most notable success in the diplomatic record of this papacy: reestablishing relations between the US and Cuba, and opening the door to the end of the American embargo.

Political lessons

None of this, of course, means that the new Vatican approach to geopolitics is beyond reproach. Most certainly, the Vatican's attempt to keep the US out of the war in Syria may have cost more lives than an American intervention, and helped buttress the position of Russia and the Syrian government in the conflict. Yet, it is also part of the process that ultimately resulted in the defeat of the "Islamic State."

But it's not necessarily the historical judgement of the positions taken by this pope that makes the new approach to geopolitics so extraordinary. It's rather the sheer success in its projection of power. For better or worse, it's quite clear that the commitment to a form of dialogue that does not privilege invectives and declamations has served the Vatican well.

As for the results of the visit to Myanmar, only time will tell if the conversations which the pope initiated and which now will be followed up by the Vatican diplomatic corps can indeed stop the atrocities committed against the Rohingya for decades. Intuitively, nonetheless, one can venture to suggest that there is some wisdom in not antagonizing those on whose hands rests on the fate of hundreds of thousands.

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