VATICAN CITY—Burma’s Catholic cardinal on Friday defended Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi against “unfair” criticism over the military crackdown on Muslim Rohingya, and said that terming it “ethnic cleansing” was unhelpful and premature.
Cardinal Charles Bo spoke to The Associated Press ahead of Pope Francis’ visit next week to Burma and Bangladesh, to where nearly 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape the violence by Burma security forces in the poverty-wracked Rakhine state.
During the visit starting Nov. 27, Francis will be toeing a very delicate diplomatic line, given that he has in the past strongly condemned the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” denounced their suffering and called for them to receive “full rights.”
In a video message to Burma released Friday, Francis didn’t mention Rohingya or the conflict, but said he wanted to bring a message of “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace” to Burma. He said that message was rooted in the Gospel, which “teaches the dignity of every man and woman and compels us to open our hearts to the other, especially the poorest and neediest.”
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Bo said Suu Kyi certainly should have spoken out earlier against the looting, burning and killing in Rakhine. He said the military had mounted a disproportionate response to attacks on Burma security forces by Rohingya militants.
But he said: “Aung Sung constitutionally has no voice to say anything to the military. And she is in her own clever way trying to negotiate with the military so there will be co-operation between the government and the military.”
“Time will prove that she has her own agenda of moving the country toward democracy,” Burma Cardinal Charles Bo said as he defended Suu Kyi.
“Time will prove that she has her own agenda of moving the country toward democracy,” Burma Cardinal Charles Bo said as he defended Suu Kyi. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
International criticism of Suu Kyi, including by the UN leadership, U.S, European Union and even some of her fellow Nobel laureates, is “very unfair,” Bo said.
“Time will prove that she has her own agenda of moving the country toward democracy,” he said.
Bo, the archbishop of Yangon and Burma’s first-ever cardinal represents a tiny religious minority in majority Buddhist Burma.
He said the Catholic Church in Burma had urged Francis to avoid using the term “Rohingya” on the trip, or at least make clear that he wasn’t making a political statement if he does use it.
Our correspondent reports from a sprawling makeshift city that houses hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people, driven from their homes by Burma’s military. (The New York Times)
Burma’s government and most of the Buddhist majority don’t recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, insisting they are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country. It has denied them citizenship, even though they have lived in Burma.
“The pope will have to be very cautious in using the term ‘Rohingya’ because that is very political and very much contested,” Bo said.
The United Nations human rights chief has called Burma’s actions against Rohingya “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
Bo said such terms were unhelpful in the current situation when Suu Kyi is trying to implement recommendations by a commission of experts headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to improve the plight of Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities.
“There has been violence, and the response that the military made is no comparison to the militants,” he said. “But to term it genocide or ethnic cleansing — I’m not expert in that — I think we need to consider more time before using such extreme terms.”