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(Suu Kyi has spoken with me of those fears herself.) As an ethnic minority, as Muslims, and as people who came from the Indian subcontinent, the Rohingya are thrice vulnerable.
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.
“I have always been a politician,” she told Obama firmly in her British-accented English.
After the meeting, as Obama’s motorcade snaked through a throng of Suu Kyi’s supporters, many of them holding posters with her face on it, he said something in the back of the limo that has stuck in my mind. “The image only fades.” At the time, that seemed unlikely: Suu Kyi’s reputation still put her at the celestial heights occupied by the likes of Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, and Nelson Mandela.
A picture of Mahatma Gandhi looked down with a serene smile.The government Suu Kyi is now a part of—in April 2016 she became state counselor, a role similar to prime minister, after her party won a national election—has curtailed civil liberties and press freedoms, and carried out what the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Others have called it a genocide.Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced across the border to Bangladesh, into refugee camps, where disease is rampant and the children are malnourished and have almost no access to education.The meeting was a high-water mark for three historic figures.
Obama had just decisively won a second term as president.In response, Rakhine Buddhists attacked the Rohingya, burning their villages; ultimately more than 100,000 Rohingya were displaced into squalid camps.