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Myanmar Cardinal Defends Aung San Suu Kyi on Eve of Pope Trip

FILE - Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, attends the ceremony of interfaith praying in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 10, 2017 .

Myanmar'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 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 video message 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."

FILE - Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at Clark International Airport, north of Manila, Philippines to attend the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Manila, Nov. 11, 2017.
FILE - Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at Clark International Airport, north of Manila, Philippines to attend the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Manila, Nov. 11, 2017.

Bo said Aung San 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 Aung San 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 Aung San 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."