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Will the pope’s Myanmar visit bring any relief to persecuted Rohingya?

Without mentioning the Rohingya by name, Pope Francis spoke out in Myanmar of the need to respect all ethnic groups. It was unclear whether the pope pressed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has downplayed the severity of the attacks in the past, on the issue of persecution. William Brangham talks to Priscilla Clapp, former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar, about the impact of the pope’s visit.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, Pope Francis continued his high-stakes visit to Myanmar today amid the ongoing campaign of ethnic violence against that nation's Muslim Rohingya population.

    William Brangham has that story.

  • William Brangham:

    The pope flew to Myanmar's capital today, the second day of his visit to this majority Buddhist nation. He met with Myanmar's powerful military leaders yesterday.

    The pontiff had been warned by the local Catholic cardinal not to mention the Rohingya by name. More than 600,000 Muslim Rohingyas have fled from Rakhine State in Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh.

    They're fleeing what they describe as widespread attacks, rapes, murders, and the burning of entire villages by government forces. The U.S. and the United Nations have called these attacks ethnic cleansing. And the U.N. Human Rights Council will meet next week in a special session to examine the situation.

    Pope Francis met today with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is now the civilian leader of the country. In his comments, the pope didn't mention the Rohingya by name, but it seemed clear who he was referring to when he spoke of the need to respect all ethnic groups in Myanmar.

    Pope Francis (through interpreter): The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order.

  • William Brangham:

    Aung San Suu Kyi, who in the past has downplayed the severity of the attacks on the Rohingya, today mentioned only the world's interest in this crisis.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi:

    Of the many challenges that our government has been facing, the situation in the Rakhine has most strongly captured the attention of the world.

  • William Brangham:

    It's not clear if the pope pressed her privately on the plight of the Rohingya, but he will likely visit with some of those refugees in Bangladesh later this week.

    Today, the Bangladeshi government approved a plan to develop a flood-prone island barely above sea level in the Bay of Bengal. It's meant to temporarily house up to 100,000 Rohingya by 2019.

    For more on the impact the pope's trip is likely to have on this conflict, we turn to Priscilla Clapp. She's a retired career diplomat who served as chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, and she just returned from a trip to that country.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    So, could you tell me, what is your sense? Is the pope's visit and the things that he said and the people he has spoken to, is that likely to stop the attacks on the Rohingya? Is it going to help this crisis in any way?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    There's not magic bullet to this problem. It is a very deep-seated problem in Myanmar society itself.

    And it will take a long time to resolve that. I think that his visit is very important for the country. He brought a very important message to the people about tolerance, about what is expected of democratic societies in the 21st century world. And I think that people will hear that message that he brought.

  • William Brangham:

    Why is that? I'm curious. So, just help us understand how the pope is seen in that community. It's a country that most of us are not familiar with.

    What do they think of a man like him? And him coming and saying respect all ethnic minorities in your nation, how is that going to be heard?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Well, I think they have great respect for the pope. And I'm sure that they will take his message seriously.

    There are militants and let's say extremist ultra-nationalists in different sectors of the society who may not hear his message, but the majority of the people will hear it. And the majority of the Buddhists in Myanmar are peace-loving people. They do not practice the form of Buddhism that we hear from the militant monks.

    That's not the form of Buddhism that they practice. They're very tolerant of other religions, and tend to listen to these kinds of messages. I think they will take it very seriously.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the things that has been deeply disturbing to many people is Aung San Suu Kyi's reaction to this.

    In the past, she seemed to have downplayed the attacks on the Rohingya. She seemed even in her most recent comments to simply talk about the interest that the world had paid, without really addressing it.

    And I know you just met with her. Does she understand the full extent of what's going on there?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Well, I don't think you heard your full message. What she said just in meeting with the pope was that they're trying to create a situation in the country where all minorities and ethnic groups and religions can live peacefully together on an equal footing, and with respect for rule of law and democratic interaction.

    People are hearing that message from her, but the — for some reason, the outside world doesn't hear it.

  • William Brangham:

    But she did downplay it in the past, that she said, I wouldn't use the term ethnic cleansing. She said the military is not attacking and raping people.

    For a woman who was a Nobel laureate and held up by many as a champion of human rights, it seems as if she — forgive me if I'm wrong, but she was downplaying the severity of that crisis. Do you disagree with that?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    I don't disagree with that, but she has to deal with the military. She has to deal with her own population. And she needs to maintain her public persona on an even keel with all of the different groups in the country, including the military.

  • William Brangham:

    Are they the big players?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    The military are not going to go away. And this is a divided government.

    She is leading a civilian government under a military constitution that leaves the military in control of vital parts of the country and the government all the way down to the local level. And she cannot turn things around without bring the military along. And, in fact, they had been governing the country since it was taken over in a military coup in 1962.

    That's a very long time. They're sharing the government right now with civilians for the first time, but only sharing. During the years that the military was in total control, they pitted all of these ethnic minority groups against each other, both religious and ethnic minorities. And they didn't allow them to communicate with each other. They kept them apart.

    So it's only for the last five years that they have had any experience in interacting with each other, and they're learning very fast, but it's going to be a generation-long task here.

  • William Brangham:

    Priscilla Clapp, thank you very much.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Thank you.

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