The Lady and the Pope

11/27/2017 11:05 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2017

Beloved, beautiful and revered, Aung San Suu Kyi was the rebel with the fragrant flowers in her hair who outlasted a combined 15 years of confinement to come as close as possible to claiming power in Myanmar. It was a story of grace and resilience that captured the world’s imagination and attention.

Now, that inspirational tale is in tatters. “The Lady,” as she is called, is publicly under fire for not doing enough to protect those in her care.

This week, Pope Francis may or may not take sides on his visit to Myanmar, or Burma, as the United States prefers to call the country. He has been instructed by both Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Myanmar, and Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general who headed a commission looking into internal abuses, to avoid using the word “Rohingya” in reference to the persecuted and stateless Muslim minority that is shunned by the Buddhist majority inside the country. The Pope will be walking a diplomatic tightrope, figuratively as difficult as Nik Wallenda’s stunning strut across the Grand Canyon. Will the pope succeed where Aung San Suu Kyi has, so far, disappointed?

The question is: How to show empathy and effect change without antagonizing the military that still wields most of the power in Burma? Because of the electoral success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in November 2015, which won 80 percent of the available seats in parliament, Suu Kyi became the country’s foreign minister, state counselor and the face of Burma. But, constitutionally, she is unable to become president or control the military.

That is the nub of the problem. The Rohingya, concentrated in Rakhine state and constituting less than 2 percent of the population or about 1.2 million (that is, before the recent exodus of over 600,000 to Bangladesh), are mostly confined in squalid conditions and denied citizenship, jobs and land ownership. In August, a radical Rohingya group attacked a military outpost and the military-led retaliation has been extreme with random slaughter, rape and scorched-earth policies reminiscent of Darfur. The US recently called it a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” and the world has longed for Suu Kyi to raise her voice.

For years, The Lady hung the moon and the stars. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while in captivity, Aung San Suu Kyi finally went to Stockholm to accept the honor in 2012. In her Nobel lecture, she begged the world not to forget those who are suffering “displacement…injustice, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry…Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” The Committee responded by saying that she was “an important symbol in the struggle against oppression.”

Now, in the face of military oppression in her own country, Sui Kyi has waivered in her criticism of the armed forces and tried to divert attention to “a young and fragile country facing many problems…We cannot just concentrate on the few.” Such silence is not golden in the view of her international critics. Last September, fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu wrote an open letter to her pleading, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

But that seems to be The Lady’s game plan. Wait it out. Just as she did in fifteen years of confinement and was finally freed. But, there are others at risk now. Every day more Rohingya grab their few belongings, wrap their arms around their children, and run for their lives.

Maybe Pope Francis can show another way. Myanmar filled a space in the pontiff’s schedule, when a trip to India was dropped. It turns out to be the trickiest of his papal visits. In the course of his stay, Pope Francis will meet with members of the military, Aung San Suu Kyi, representatives of religious minorities, including Rohingya, say mass in a stadium in Yangon, the largest city, and spend two days in Bangladesh to meet with Rohingya families who have fled to safety. Pope Francis will have ample opportunity to speak out. In August, the pope asked the world to “pray for our Rohingya brethren.” Now, the world waits to see how he navigates support for The Lady and her ideal of eventually bringing true democracy to Myanmar and condemnation of the facts on the ground. It is a challenge worthy of this pope.

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