A year of Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis: Who is Aung San Suu Kyi and why are we watching so closely?

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had a breakout year in 2018, perhaps most notably for her active engagement with the issue of Rohingya refugees, who have lived in squalor, sometimes in rickety refugee camps, despite their apparent clear claim to Myanmar.

In the late-summer-early-fall of 2017, an August 7 massacre of Rohingya by Myanmar’s military in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State took the world by surprise. The military burned down Muslim villages, killing hundreds of people, in response to what was widely viewed as a peaceful local uprising against government repression. That’s a war crime, a violation of international humanitarian law, and an affront to Myanmar’s claim that the Rohingya are just some other country’s “others.”

Myanmar’s response to this took a policy of national reconciliation, eroding decades of Hlaing’s and Suu Kyi’s (and Burma’s) anti-Rohingya nationalism. Still, the Rohingya Rohingya — that is, to those watching Myanmar’s government debates around the Rohingya issue closely — remain a sore thumb.

A year after Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership was underscored by a United Nations General Assembly resolution recognising the Rohingya as Myanmar’s national minorities, the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, largely out of fear of further persecution and shooting and burnings in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The result was a refugee crisis so dire that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was quickly overwhelmed with millions of Rohingya awaiting a refugee processing process. And thus in the most literal of terms, the Rohingya crisis made Aung San Suu Kyi a lightning rod for criticism, both internationally and inside Myanmar.

This year, Aung San Suu Kyi walked a tricky line. She adopted the Rohingya crisis as one of her own government’s priorities and has earned the gratitude of world leaders. But she also seemed nervous about adding more confusion to an already messy situation. She rarely looked uncomfortable and appeared to summon a Zen-like coolness around the situation.

Under her leadership, Myanmar sought solutions to its problems. It claimed to undertake a “scoping exercise” in January to determine a way to “return” the Rohingya into Myanmar (which these days basically means Bangladesh — since a large chunk of them are ineligible to return to Rakhine State), even though some villagers returned voluntarily. In June, they made what appeared to be tentative steps to an official repatriation agreement with Bangladesh (though progress has since stalled). In July, Myanmar signed an agreement with UNHCR that offered a framework for taking back the Rohingya from Bangladesh, but an agreement with Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army leaders must still be agreed upon before there are any Rohingya actually repatriated (though with February’s agreement between UN peacekeepers and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army leaders, repatriation efforts may have picked up some speed). A UN Declaration on Action Toward Reintegration of Rohingya Returnees took effect in mid-September, but no specific action plan or end to the crisis was signaled. Meanwhile, in April, a general election in Burma brought Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy back to power. It remains unclear how the party will proceed in its approach to the Rohingya crisis. But while 2017 seemed to endorse Suu Kyi’s leadership — as it trumpeted her diplomatic successes at the UN, she released dozens of political prisoners and won re-election in a landslide — 2018 spoke more critically.

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