TOKYO -- The Rohingya crisis that has infuriated many abroad has defied Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to resolve it, in part because of an unusual alignment of the public and the military that leaves her with few options.
Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar from England in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, and became the face of the country's pro-democracy movement. She spent 15 years under house arrest, only to become the nation's defacto leader in 2016 after Myanmar transitioned to civilian rule.
Her clash with a military-led government that had held on to power for more than half a century was spurred on by the people of Myanmar and the international community. The crackdown on the Rohingya, which has driven more than 700,000 members of the Muslim minority group into neighboring Bangladesh, has upended this dynamic.
Anti-military sentiment still runs deep among the public, with memories of the old junta still fresh. Yet many support the military's hard line on the Muslim minority group.
Myanmar's 1982 citizenship law in effect excludes the Rohingya from its definition of "national" ethnic groups entitled to citizenship. Many in Myanmar express open hostility toward them, calling them "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh who only claim to be indigenous, and accusing them of trying to take over the country by outbreeding native groups.
In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Suu Kyi asserted that Myanmar understands foreign concerns about human rights regarding the crackdown on the Rohingya. She said this is "not a religious issue" but an economic and social one, noting that Rakhine State, where most Rohingya lived, is "one of the poorest, least-developed parts of our country."
But it is hard to deny that anti-Muslim prejudice is at play in a country that is 90% Buddhist.
To keep the government running smoothly, Suu Kyi has little choice but to cooperate with the military, which holds absolute authority when it comes to security, and to heed the will of the people.
Her silence on the Rohingya issue has drawn condemnation from abroad. Human rights group Amnesty International stripped Suu Kyi of its highest honor last year, denouncing what it called a "shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for."
The proximate cause of the refugee crisis is a crackdown brought on by attacks on security forces by a Rohingya insurgent group. The ensuing "clearance operations" drove Rohingya to flee across the border into neighboring Bangladesh.
A United Nations report last month found "strengthened" evidence implying "genocidal intent on the part of the state," including indiscriminate attacks against Rohingya that have killed even children. Despite living in what the report calls "appalling conditions" in camps, Rohingya refugees have refused the government's invitation to return to Myanmar, still fearing for their lives.
Religious and ethnic strife is a thorny problem that cannot be thought of in purely logical terms. But intolerance of others is incompatible with democracy.
Suu Kyi has sought to position herself in the vanguard of democratization again, calling for changes to undemocratic provisions in the constitution, such as the quota of legislative seats guaranteed to the military. Addressing the Rohingya problem will test her ability to navigate the complexities at the nexus of power and human rights.