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In a country where any unauthorized assembly had until recently been illegal, tens of thousands of people had greeted Obama’s motorcade.
Later, he would address the Burmese people at the University of Yangon, which had been shuttered since shortly after students were gunned down in the pro-democracy protests that followed Suu Kyi’s 1988 entry into politics.
In late 2016 and early 2017, attacks by Rohingya insurgents led to wildly disproportionate responses by the Burmese military, culminating in the systematic expulsion of those 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh amid allegations of horrifying violence. Her seemingly callous indifference has felt to many outsiders like a betrayal.
How can Suu Kyi, an avatar of human rights for so many years, stand by while her government violently tramples them?
Many Burmese resent people of South Asian descent, in part because when Britain governed Myanmar (then Burma) as part of India, it put Indians in positions of authority.
And many Burmese Buddhists fear the fate of countries such as Afghanistan and Indonesia, where an intolerant strain of Islam—at times financed by Saudi Arabia—has supplanted Buddhism.
The first time I met Aung San Suu Kyi, she embodied hope.
A Rohingya human-rights activist named Wai Wai Nu, who was imprisoned by the junta for several years, told me, “It’s all about power—keeping Burmese Buddhist power.” A few months before Obama’s 2012 meeting with Suu Kyi, Muslim men in Rakhine State had allegedly raped a Buddhist woman.The status of the Rohingya, who live in Rakhine State—which borders Bangladesh to the north and the Bay of Bengal to the west—has long been at issue.Many Burmese deny that the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group, referring to them as Bengalis—unauthorized immigrants from Bangladesh.In response, Rakhine Buddhists attacked the Rohingya, burning their villages; ultimately more than 100,000 Rohingya were displaced into squalid camps.Conditions for the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya in Rakhine State became more precarious.
In her years as a political prisoner, Suu Kyi—the daughter of Aung San, who led the country to the brink of independence in the 1940s—had become a potent symbol, an international icon of resistance against the military junta and the repository of the Burmese people’s remaining hopes.