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  • Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo talks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Rome, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. Myanmar's Catholic cardinal has defended Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi against "unfair" criticism over Myanmar's military crackdown on Muslim Rohingya, and says terming it "ethnic cleansing" is unhelpful and premature. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

  • Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait in queues to receive aid at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that the U.S. is deeply concerned by "credible reports" of atrocities committed by Myanmar's security forces and called for an independent investigation into a humanitarian crisis in which hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

  • Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo talks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Rome, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. Myanmar's Catholic cardinal has defended Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi against "unfair" criticism over Myanmar's military crackdown on Muslim Rohingya, and says terming it "ethnic cleansing" is unhelpful and premature. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Friday, November 17, 2017 11:10 am

Myanmar cardinal defends Suu Kyi on eve of pope trip

NICOLE WINFIELD | Associated Press

VATICAN CITY -- Myanmar's Catholic cardinal on Friday defended Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi against "unfair" criticism about the military crackdown on Muslim Rohingya, and said  terming it "ethnic cleansing" was unhelpful and premature.

Cardinal Charles Bo spoke to the Associated Press ahead of Pope Francis' visit next week to Myanmar and Bangladesh, to where nearly 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape the violence by Myanmar 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 videomessage to Myanmar released Friday, Francis didn't mention Rohingya or the conflict, but said he wanted to bring a message of "reconciliation, forgiveness and peace" to Myanmar. 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."

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 Myanmar 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 cooperation between the government and the military."

International criticism of Suu Kyi, including by the U.N. 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 Myanmar's first-ever cardinal, represents a tiny religious minority in majority Buddhist Myanmar.

He said the Catholic Church in Myanmar 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.

Myanmar'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 Myanmar, also known as Burma, for generations.

"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 Myanmar'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 U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to improve the plight of Myanmar'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."