‘Rohingya’ absent from Pope’s Myanmar speech

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NAYPYITAW: Pope Francis called for respect for rights and justice in a keenly-watched address in Myanmar yesterday, but refrained from any mention of the Rohingya or the alleged ethnic cleansing that has driven huge numbers of the Muslim minority from the country.

Sharing a stage with Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital, he did not address the Rohingya crisis head-on but instead tip-toed around the unfolding humanitarian emergency.

Peace can only be achieved through "justice and a respect for human rights", he said in a broadly-framed speech that also called for "respect for each ethnic group and its identity".

The word "Rohingya", an incendiary term in a mainly Buddhist country where the Muslim minority are denied citizenship and branded illegal "Bengali" immigrants, was absent from his speech.

He has repeatedly defended the group, some 620,000 of whom have fled from Myanmar's Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August.

Rights groups had urged him to tackle Myanmar about its treatment of the minority during his four-day visit, but the local Catholic Church had cautioned him against straying into the Rohingya issue.

Ms Suu Kyi spoke of the challenges her country faces as it creeps out of the shadow of five decades of military rule, but also did not reference the Rohingya.

Pope Francis' peace mission is studded with pitfalls in Myanmar, where a monk-led Buddhist nationalist movement has fostered loathing for the Rohingya.

Political analyst Richard Horsey speculated that Pope Francis "is likely to have been more forthright in private meetings with Myanmar's leaders".

So far, the pontiff has received a warm welcome in Myanmar, whose Catholic community numbers just over one per cent of the country's 51 million people.

Some 200,000 Catholics poured into Yangon ahead of a huge, open-air mass yesterday morning.

Pope Francis will travel on to Bangladesh tomorrow. - AFP