Why Pope Francis Was Urged to Avoid The Word 'Rohingya' In Myanmar

Pope Francis has been advised to avoid the word "Rohingya" during his official visit in Myanmar amid fears it could further inflame tensions in the region. The pontiff is in the country between November 27 and November 30, before travelling to neighboring Bangladesh.

The visit is expected to shed further light on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority group that lives in segregated conditions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, mainly in Rakhine state. It comes as more than 620,000 Rohingya fleeing a military operation in Myanmar have sought shelter in Bangladesh since August, amid what the U.N. said was a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

In Myanmar, the Rohingya are regarded as stateless people and unwelcome migrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh and they have become one of the world's most persecuted ethnic minorities.They routinely flee the country to escape alleged persecution from the state, which refuses to refer to them as "Rohingya", a term that would denote their ethnicity.

"We have asked him [Pope Francis] at least to refrain from using the word 'Rohingya' because this word is very much contested and not acceptable by the military, nor the government, nor the people in Myanmar," Yangon Cardinal Charles Maung Bo told Reuters ahead of Francis' visit.

Pope Francis in Myanmar
Pope Francis is greeted by children upon his arrival at Yangon International Airport on November 27, 2017. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

It is not clear whether the Pope will refrain from using the word during his stay in Myanmar, where he is expected to meet the de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the army, General Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss the crisis.

Francis has often spoken out against the persecution of Rohingya "brothers and sisters".Vatican spokesperson Greg Burk said ahead of Francis' trip: "It is not a forbidden word."

Suu Kyi has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the ongoing crisis.

In her first address on the situation in September, she condemned human rights abuses, but failed to address U.N. claims of ethnic cleansing.

Suu Kyi did not use the word "Rohingya", explaining that it was too "emotive" and "highly charged" for an already affected population.

"There has been a lot of controversy with regard to the term used to describe the Muslims in Rakhine as there are those who want to call themselves as Rohingyas or who want to refer to the Muslims there as Rohingyas. There are those who want to call themselves as just Bengalis, which are not ethnic Rakhine," she told ANI news agency.

The politician and Nobel peace prize laureate traveled to Rakhine in November, her first visit since the crisis erupted in August.

The Rohingya numbered around 1 million in Myanmar at the beginning of the year. However,due to the ongoing crisis, there are now an estimated 400,000 Rohingya left in the country.

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The latest mass exodus was sparked following attacks by Rohingya insurgents that killed at least 11 people in Rakhine. The military retaliated in what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out any fighters found in villages across the state.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Burmese army carried out crimes including "extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and widespread arson" in Rakhine. In a report released in November, the organization claimed that Burmese security forces raped women and girls as part of "a campaign of ethnic cleansing against "Rohingya Muslims" after interviewing 52 Rohingya women and girls who had fled to Bangladesh. The military has denied all allegations of crimes.

Earlier in November, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal to return hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Although details of the agreement are still sketchy, some have pointed out Rohingya might not want to return to a country where they face harsh persecution and violence.