Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi began a visit to the northern part of the country’s Rakhine State Thursday, her first tour of the area since military violence sent more than half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border just over two months ago.
The long-awaited trip follows mounting international pressure on the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to stop brutal military operations launched in response to an attack by Rohingya insurgents on Aug. 25. Since that day, more than 607,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh bearing bullet wounds and accounts of atrocities. The crisis has become a key challenge for Suu Kyi’s 18-month-old administration.
Suu Kyi, whose official title is state counsellor, has said little in the face of a crackdown labelled “ethnic cleansing” by the U.N. In a rare speech at the end of September, she called into question why the refugees were even leaving the country. Her reticence has been hugely disappointing to many of her supporters in the West, who long championed the political prisoner-turned-politician as an icon of democratic principles and human rights.
Suu Kyi has rarely ventured to the restive, impoverished Rakhine State. She has previously said that any visit could exacerbate simmering communal tensions. Her belated visit appears timed to quell both international and domestic anxieties about the crisis, according to Khin Zaw Win, director of the Myanmar think tank Tampadipa Institute. “I expect this long-overdue visit would reassure some of the local inhabitants who had fled,” Khin Zaw Win tells TIME. “Most importantly it should send a signal to the military that they have to ease off.”
That’s easier said than done in a country where Suu Kyi’s government, which came to power through a landslide election win after decades of brutal military rule, shares power with its former oppressors. While Myanmar is transitioning toward democracy, its civilian leaders remain hostage to a military drafted constitution that grants veto power and control of key ministries to the Commander-in-Chief. Suu Kyi’s defenders argue that she is powerless to stop the military from carrying out its will.
Moreover, the damage may well be done. Far more than half of the entire estimated Rohingya population has fled to Bangladesh, where they joined others who sought refuge from previous violence. About one million Rohingya now live in crowded and unsanitary camps along the border. Myanmar says it is willing to repatriate them, also the preferred solution for Bangladesh, but conditions are not appropriate until violence subsides and the group can be guaranteed citizenship. The Rohingya, with an estimated prior population of about 1.1 million within Myanmar before most of them fled, has been rendered mostly stateless and is considered one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
“Ultimately, like a lot of her government’s policies on Rakhine State and conflict throughout Myanmar, it’s too little, too late,” says David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Yangon, “and utterly lacking in the appropriate levels of concern of the gravity of the crisis.”
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