By John Pontifex
MYANMAR’s senior Catholic prelate 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, which stood in strong contrast to her decades-long fight for democratic freedoms in her country.
In defense of Ms. Suu Kyi, Cardinal Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, underlined that constitutionally her authority is limited and highlighted the powers still wielded by the army, which has violently targeted Rohingyas in recent weeks.
Responding to condemnations of Ms. Suu Kyi, he said: “As we know, her role has come under scorching criticism. But her status is not official under the constitution.” As state counselor, she plays a leading role in government, without having ultimate control of the government, a power that still belongs to the military.
The cardinal added: “As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues [in office], 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 stabilize the fragile democracy. Democracy is hard won and it took 60 years to get to where the country is today.”
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 that the army still exercized significant political influence.
It is estimated that 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighboring 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 just claimed again that Rohingya villages have been burned by members of the Myanmar’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 seats in Parliament and also wields influence over important ministries. This is a tightrope to 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 through her silence.”
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 on Sept. 19, 2017, that the government had authorized the destruction of Rohingya settlements—this, despite her solid record of condemning human rights violations in the country.
Pointing to positive developments Cardinal Bo sad: “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 slated for November could help improve the situation for the Rohingya minority. “The Pope has been an active supporter of the Rohingyas. Already three times he has spoken from the Vatican and the 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 regarding other conflicts as well.”