“I am very, very satisfied with the meetings,” he said.
In his nearly hourlong remarks, the pope sought to explain his approach to effective diplomacy (“one half step back, one step forward”) and strategic communications (“the most important thing is that the message gets across”) and even offered his geopolitical analysis, explaining that someone had told him that the area of Myanmar where the Rohingya lived was “rich in precious stones” and that outside interests perhaps wanted it emptied for mining. “But I don’t know if it’s true,” he said.
He called the meeting with the Rohingya in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a “condition of the trip,” and opened up about the emotions he experienced visiting with 16 survivors of the persecution, to whom he vowed: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
Aboard the plane, the pope flashed a defensive streak about his avoidance of using the politically contentious word during his days in Myanmar.
“If I had said that word in the official speeches, it would have been a door slammed in the face,” he said, using a metaphor he turned to several times, and which he said evoked for him the image of how an angry teenager vents frustration.
“It’s true I didn’t have the pleasure of slamming the door in their face publicly with a denunciation,” the pope said. “But I had the satisfaction of dialogue, and letting the other side dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.”
He argued that his caution granted him access to private meetings, where he could be more frank.
Of his meeting with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who has led a campaign of mass murder, rape and arson against the Rohingya, the pope said that “I did not negotiate with the truth” during the conversation and that he made the general understand that the horrors of the past were no longer viable.
The general had demanded to meet with Pope Francis before the pontiff saw Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose reputation has suffered for her failure to forcefully condemn the killings. (The pope suggested she be cut some slack, saying, “In Myanmar, it’s difficult to evaluate a criticism without asking ‘is it possible to have done this?’”)
When a reporter asked the pope if he worried he had been used as a political pawn by the general to show the country who was boss, the pope said, “The intention of that I do not know, but I was interested in dialogue.” Pressed if he had used the word “Rohingya” in the private meeting, he responded that once he made sure the general understood his message, “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”
All of that diplomatic work, the pope suggested, was done to encourage Myanmar, a country “at the tipping point,” to push ahead toward democracy. And he likewise suggested that his silence on the Rohingya paid off with the trip’s culminating meeting with the refugees in Dhaka on Friday.
He pointed out that TG1, an Italian news program, dedicated a long segment to the meeting. “You saw today the front pages of the papers. All of them have received the message. And I have not heard any criticism. Maybe there is, but I haven’t heard it.”
The old Francis charm, he seemed to be saying, was back in action.
At different points of the trip, humanitarian activists had wondered where his special touch had gone. They expressed disappointment that Pope Francis, admired for speaking out for the downtrodden, had gone quiet for fear of endangering his own flock in Myanmar. Some analysts questioned how it affected his moral authority. Locals doubted his influence.
Last Monday, when the pope arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, and met with General Min Aung Hlaing, a woman, Hla Yin Win, 31, was walking around the city’s revered pagoda complex with her husband and baby daughter. She stopped in front of a wood shrine with gold-painted pillars dedicated by Buddhist faithful from the Rakhine State, where the Rohingya have been persecuted.
Ms. Win said that she liked the general “because the military power is important for our country,” that she appreciated the soldiers “doing their duty” and that she considered the Rohingya, who had been in the country for generations, “illegal immigrants who don’t speak Burmese and are bad for our country.”
Asked if she thought the pope could make a difference in the crisis, she shook her head.
“He doesn’t matter,” she said.
On the plane the pope reminded why he did matter. He relived in detail the meeting with Rohingya refugees at a packed interreligious meeting in the garden of the Dhaka archbishop’s residence.
He explained that at the end of the event, the 16 men, women and children came up to the stage, but that organizers “immediately wanted to kick them off the scene. That’s when I got angry. I yelled a bit.”
He met with them individually and added that he could not let them leave without saying a word.
“In that moment, I began to feel things inside. I was crying but I tried to hide it. They were crying too,” he said. “So I asked for the microphone,” and that is when the pope finally said, “Rohingya.”