The leader of Myanmar’s Catholic Church spoke out on Friday against what he called unjust criticism of Nobel Peace laureate and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group.

Speaking in an interview with the Associated Press (AP) ahead of a visit to Myanmar by Pope Francis beginning Nov. 27, Cardinal Charles Bo said that international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi over her perceived indifference to the plight of the Rohingya has been “very unfair.”

Cardinal Bo noted that under the terms of Myanmar’s constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi has no political authority to criticize the country’s military, which enjoys a majority vote in parliament and controls important government departments.

However, the Nobel laureate has been working carefully behind the scenes to negotiate with Myanmar’s military, which formerly ruled the country directly for decades, Bo said in his interview, adding, “Time will prove that she has her own agenda of moving the country toward democracy.”

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled northern Rakhine to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in response to deadly attacks in late August on police outposts by a Muslim militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Speaking to rights groups and U.N. investigators in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have accused Myanmar troops of atrocities including killings, torture, arson, and rape—charges that Myanmar denies.

The Catholic Church in Myanmar has urged the Pope not to use the “political and contested” term Rohingya during his visit, as the term is widely rejected by Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population, Bo told the Associated Press.

Pope Francis has many times expressed concern over the plight of the Muslim ethnic group, which he has called a persecuted religious minority, and has urged the Myanmar government to grant the group full citizenship rights.

Many schools still closed

Inside the conflict zone, nearly 300 schools remain closed in Myanmar’s conflict-hit Rakhine state as authorities work to reopen facilities closed in the wake of attacks by ARSA and subsequent military security operations in late August, the government’s Information Committee said on Thursday.

Around 130 schools have reopened though, government sources said.

“Teachers are on standby to start at the schools, but we have found that some students—especially from Muslim villages—are not coming to the schools,” Maungdaw District Education Officer U Ohn Myint said.

“It will be impossible to open all the schools in Maungdaw district this year, but we are taking steps to open them in certain areas depending on the security situation.”

Nearly 3,000 students who fled from Maungdaw and Buthidaung towns to the Rakhine capital Sittwe following ARSA attacks have been attending school in Sittwe with no interruption to their education, according to the Rakhine State Education Department.

Schools presently closed will reopen when all students return, Rakhine State Education Officer Aung Kyaw Tun said.

“We can’t open schools without students,” Aung Kyaw Tun said. “We will reopen them only when those who have fled come back and stability in the region is restored.”

Speaking at a panel discussion on Friday in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, former government spokesman Ye Htut meanwhile called talk of a final reconciliation between Rakhine’s Buddhist majority and the minority Rohingya “a fantasy.”

“These two communities haven’t gotten along since 1942,” Ye Htut said, referring to an earlier period of deadly communal violence and clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine.

“But even though they don’t like each other, we can at least make them live together in peace,” he said.



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