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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.But she spoke to us as though she had no interest in being an icon.She sat at a small, round table with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Derek Mitchell, who had recently been named the first U. Looking up at the worn books on the shelves behind her, I imagined the hours she must have spent reading them in enforced solitude.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.
Obama had just decisively won a second term as president.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.It felt as if a heavy shroud was being lifted off the country.