By: John Newton
Burma (Myanmar)'s most senior Catholic bishop has expressed support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – despite the international community's widespread criticism of her response to the country's Rohingya crisis. In defence of Ms Suu Kyi, Cardinal Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon (Rangoon), underlined that constitutionally her authority is limited and highlighted the powers still wielded by the army, which a number of sources state has violently targeted Rohingyas.
Responding to condemnations of Ms Suu Kyi, he said: "As we know, her role has come under scorching criticism. Her status is not official under the constitution."
The cardinal added: "As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues we have hope. She is a strong woman with strong principles. Despite the piercing criticisms of the international community, Myanmar depends on her for many compassionate responses."
Cardinal Bo pointed out that, despite the country's democratic reforms, the political situation could still be precarious: "Our perception is that she is trying to stabilise the fragile democracy. Democracy is hard won and it took 60 years to reach where the country is."
In his message to the 24th World Congress of the Apostleship of the Sea in Taiwan – a copy of which the cardinal sent to Aid to the Church in Need – he stressed the army still exercised significant political influence.
It is estimated that 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in the last five weeks, following a military crackdown which came after attacks on police stations in Rakhine State by the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Amnesty International has provided evidence that Rohingya villages have been burned by members of Burma's military forces and vigilante mobs.
According to Cardinal Bo: "The army, like the Thai army, has no patience with democracy and grabbed power from democracy thrice already in Myanmar. I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has an agenda to pull the country from the grips of the army which controls 25 percent of the parliamentary – and also the important – ministries. This is a tightrope walk and she is trying her best."
But he added: "Having said that, it is very unfortunate that the recent events did not show her in a good light. She should have spoken on behalf of the victims, especially so many women and children forced to leave under such painful circumstances. She lost the support of the international community by her silence."
This week Oxford city council voted unanimously to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of the Freedom of the City of Oxford, where she studied as an undergraduate – the latest honour that she has had removed over her response to the Rohingya crisis. As part of the backlash, 400,000 people signed a petition demanding that she be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize.
Aung San Suu Kyi came under increased criticism after she denied that the government had authorised the destruction of Rohingya settlements in a speech on Tuesday, 19th September – despite generally condemning human rights violations.
Pointing to positive developments Cardinal Bo pointed out: "She has already formed a working committee and welcomed the return of the refugees and asked the committee to start the verification process. This is a welcome move."
Cardinal Bo also said the visit of Pope Francis next month (November) could help improve the situation for the Rohingya minority.
"The Pope has been an active supporter of the Rohingya issue. Already thrice he has spoken from the Vatican and world has taken note of his interest. So his visit has generated lot of interest." He added: "The government is very eager to get this visit going. The Pope has an opportunity to impress all stakeholders to take the path of peace, not only with Rohingyas but other conflicts as well."
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