Pope Francis begins Myanmar trip

Pope Francis, the first Pope ever to visit the southeast Asian nation

Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: VOA)
Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: VOA)

Pope Francis has arrived in Myanmar, becoming the first pope to ever visit the southeast Asian nation.

The world's most high-profile Christian takes center stage in a staunchly Buddhist country accused of horrifying acts of brutality against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The Pope previously decried the violence against the Rohingya, calling them his persecuted "brothers and sisters."

Experts warn that this trip will require balancing a uniquely complicated set of humanitarian, diplomatic and religious questions. Even his own cardinal has advised the Pope to steer clear of the word Rohingya for fear of stalling his message of reconciliation before it has even begun.

Aaron Connelly, research fellow at Australia's Lowy Institute, said that there was little chance the Pope's visit to Myanmar was going to be a "generic Papal visit."

"Clearly the thing that motivated this visit was always a desire to talk about the Rohingya," he said.

"The question is ... is he going to do that in a way which is less confrontational and engages?" Connelly added. "Or is he going to say, this is outrageous, these people have a right to be in Myanmar?"

More than 623,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August 25, when a new outbreak of fighting began between Myanmar's military and armed militants in Rakhina State, a poor region of western Myanmar.

The Myanmar government has denied allegations repeatedly that they are conducting a systematic campaign of violence against the Rohingya, blaming the widespread damage on a militant insurgency.

However, the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations have all accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and the refugees share similar the refugees share similar stories of killings and torched villages.

A crowd of people began to congregate downtown to greet the Pope upon his arrival despite the stifling heat and muggy weather, many singing songs and lining up hoping to view the Catholic leader. Traffic was at a near standstill.

"Pope Francis is doing this for the good of everyone in Myanmar and the world," attorney U Way Myint said.

"Whatever you want to say about the Christian leader, he has good intentions. He is a man of peace."

Francis will spend three days in Myanmar before he travels to Bangladesh on Thursday, where he's expected to meet at least a small group of Rohingya refugees while in the capital Dhaka. The last pope to visit Bangladesh was Pope John Paul II in 1986.

"As the Pope said ahead of the trip, he will bring a message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters at a press briefing on Wednesday.

In the past, the Pope hasn't been afraid of grand gestures. When he visited Greece last year, Francis took a dozen refugees back with him to Rome.

It will be the first visit by the head of the Catholic Church to Asia since the Pope's wildly successful visit to the Philippines and Sri Lanka in January 2015.

While Pope Francis's stance on the Rohingya crisis will likely dominate headlines, the Pope is also expected to push for greater rights for the several million members of Myanmar's Christian minority.