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Pope in Myanmar: a complex internal scenario

With over 52 million inhabitants and an 85% Buddhist-majority population, 135 ethnicities and 12 ethnic States with unsolved or exacerbated conflicts – as in Rakhine, marked by the crisis involving the Rohingya Muslim minority  group – Myanmar is going through a very delicate stage in the life of the Country, with impacts at geopolitical  level. Pope Francis’ visit from the 27th to the 30th of November will bring the Country under the spotlight of international media.  

(from Yangon) – Life apparently flows peacefully in the open markets, in the temples and along the chaotic streets of the centre of Yangon with the golden dome tipped with 4.000 diamonds of the Shwegadon Paya, the most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar, overlooking the city and its 6 million inhabitants.  Women are always seen smiling, their faces decorated with the typical thanakha paste – a special powder drawn from a precious bark used as make-up and to protect the skin from sunlight– men wearing the traditional longyi, a sheet of cloth worn around their waists running to the feet, amidst monks in their burgundy robes and female monks in pink. The local atmosphere and pace are still those characterising ancient Asia (albeit not for long) also as a result of 54 years of military regime and isolation from the rest of the world. Various ethnicities, languages and religions are intertwined against the backdrop of old, Chinese-style rickshaws and noisy vehicles running along the avenues, a remnant of the British rule, streets are filled with young people tampering with low-cost mobile phones and yearning for better financial opportunities, modernity, democracy and freedom. With over 52 million inhabitants and an 85% Buddhist-majority population, 135 ethnicities and 12 ethnic States with unsolved or exacerbated conflicts – as in Rakhine, marked by the crisis involving the Rohingya Muslim minority group – Myanmar is going through a very delicate stage for the life of the Country, with impacts at geopolitical level. Pope Francis’ visit from the 27th to the 30th of November will bring the Country under the spotlight of international media. Francis will be arriving with a complex task in the light of the potential implications, although the tone of the visit, as explained on several occasions, will be purely pastoral and in support of the small Catholic community (1% of the overall population), to restore peace, love and harmony throughout the Country.

Expectations and fears. The government democratically elected at the end of 2016, with a landslide victory of the National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi – forced to reach a compromise solution with the army that maintained control of strategic ministries – will have the opportunity to give a positive image of the Country to the rest of the world. There is concern over the taboo-issue of the Rohinhya people (also the bishops invited the Pope not to mention the subject) on which the international community is exerting major pressures. The richest Country in Asia, with precious gold deposits, jade, precious stones, oil, natural gas, water resources and forests, attracts the interests and the greed of many power holders and multinationals, and so does the underworld of criminal, money-laundering businesses and drug-trafficking in border zones. Foreign investors welcomed the free elections with general euphoria, but now investments in infrastructures and services are decreasing owing to the lack of political stability, bureaucratic hurdles and burdensome movement restrictions in some States where minority groups live. Power outages are frequent, even in Yangon.

The risks of democratic transition. There is widespread concern that the drop in credibility and international support of the “lady” (as Aung San Suu Kyi is fondly addressed) may cause difficulties to her government and delegitimize her in the eyes of the public opinion, thereby creating a power vacuum that would play into the hands of the army, which, albeit not blatantly, still maintains control of society according to the Chinese model. The term Rohingya is never spoken, for it triggers old grudges and diffidence: the Burmese consider them a people that arrived from Bangladesh to take over their lands, and for this reason, just like other minority groups, they have no legal documentation and are the object of discrimination in working environments, in schools or when accessing public services. The greatest fear is that the ongoing crisis may induce nationalistic Buddhist movement to regain total control of the Country with the support of the army, thus jeopardizing the difficult democratic transition process. Moreover, a big question mark hangs over the succession of the 72-year-old “Lady”, who has not yet identified charismatic leaders that could one day take her place. She is acting with great caution, juggling between national and international pressures. Although the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State chaired by Kofi Annan were rejected by the involved parties, sooner or later the government could allow international observers of the Fact-Finding Mission to verify human rights violations, as requested by the UN, and allow the return to Rakhine of thousands of families that sought shelter in Bangladesh, ensuring that there are no terrorist infiltrations, which is another major fear. Myanmar certainly has no need of threats of international sanctions that would have negative repercussions only on the population, 80% of whom live in dignified yet generalised poverty. Elite groups would thus be free to continue doing their rich businesses.  

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