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The Lady and the Rohingya

— Just days before the November 2015 general election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was asked how she would remedy the long-running repression of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, if her party came to power. She replied: “There’s a Burmese saying: You have to make big problems small and small problems disappear.”

Less than a year after the National League for Democracy’s sweeping victory, the big Rohingya problem had only gotten bigger. Violence broke out in the western state of Rakhine, where most Rohingya live, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was already being lambasted for seeming indifferent to their hardships, is now accused of silently standing by outright abuses.

Some of the criticism is deserved, but some of it is not, and the N.L.D. government understandably is chafing. But it has been slinging as much mud at activists and independent media as they are hurling accusations at it, and all this is only obscuring the vexing complexities of the situation in Rakhine. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has inherited an intractable-seeming problem after decades of military rule, and its specifics need to be understood if the Rohingya stand any chance of being helped effectively.

After decades of tensions, an outbreak of communal violence in 2012 cleaved apart the Muslim and Buddhist communities of Rakhine. More than 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya, remain displaced within the state. Many of the more than one million Rohingya who were gradually denied citizenship and disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 election still do not have adequate identity papers. Restrictions on movement in northern Rakhine curtail people’s access to work, basic public services and religious freedoms.

This already dire situation was inflamed last October, when nine members of the Border Guard police were killed in attacks on outposts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, allegedly by local Rohingya and a foreign-trained group of Rohingya from the Middle East. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, retaliated with a brutal counterinsurgency operation. An estimated 1,500 buildings in Maungdaw Township have been torched. Human rights groups have documented numerous extrajudicial killings, rapes and beatings by state security forces. Some 65,000 Muslims have since fled to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.

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