The Genocide the U.S. Didn’t See Coming

Barack Obama was determined to open up to Myanmar. Now the country’s military is slaughtering its most vulnerable ethnic group. Could the United States have prevented it?

The Moynarghona refugee camp, a claustrophobic, chaotic mass of bamboo and tarpaulin shacks, slumps over hillsides stripped bare of vegetation. Scrawny teenage boys in T-shirts and sarongs linger on its edges, staring aimlessly at trucks and rickshaws skidding by. To wander inside the camp is to have your senses assaulted—by the chatter of a thousand half-naked toddlers, the stench of raw sewage, the bitter taste of dust. The heat, which can climb toward 90 degrees during the winter season, only adds to the misery. But the air is stifling mostly because this place, this supposed refuge, has been sucked empty of hope.

Moynarghona is one of several such camps to spring up or expand in southern Bangladesh since August 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims began fleeing a military-led crackdown in neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma. The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, primarily in the country’s Rakhine state, and have long faced severe discrimination from the Buddhist majority, which views them as illegal migrants. But this latest wave of violence is the worst in modern memory. On August 25, after a Rohingya insurgent group killed a dozen members of Myanmar’s security forces, the military retaliated with outsize brutality—burning villages, raping women and slaughtering anyone in the way. Of the 1.1 million Rohingya thought to live in Myanmar prior to last summer, more than 680,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, by land and by boat. Thousands of others are believed to have been killed, although just how many remains unknown because Myanmar has restricted access to the conflict zone. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called the crisis “ethnic cleansing.” More recently, a top United Nations official said it bears “the hallmarks of a genocide.”

The village of Tula Toli in northern Rakhine state was the scene of some of the worst violence in the days after August 25. Uniformed troops charged the village, shot or hacked the men to death, and raped the women, locked them in houses and set the houses on fire. Children were not spared: Security forces tossed them into the flames or the river bordering the village, several Rohingya who escaped told me. Among the survivors was a young mother, Laila Begum, who ran for the river with her children as the security forces closed in. Begum lost hold of her 3-year-old son in the chaos. Then, as she jumped into the water to get away, an assailant tore her 18-month-old daughter out of her arms. Back on land, Begum stumbled on the body of a woman whose throat had been slashed. Next to the body sat a dazed little girl covered in blood. Begum grabbed the girl and ran, joining other Rohingya in the exodus to Bangladesh. When I met them in Moynarghona, the round-faced girl, who looked around 2 years old, called Begum “ma.” Begum called the girl Yasmeen.

Begum sat in a dark, dusty hut with clothing hung behind her. Her eyes grew blank and her voice turned soft as she tried to describe what she’d lost. “When I think of my daughter and my son, I don’t even want to hear the word ‘Myanmar,’” she said. “It was a torturous place for us.”

Hundreds of villages were attacked in the weeks after August 25. The assaults could last hours, leaving scores of burned or maimed corpses behind. Multiple Rohingya escapees said they saw the bodies of women whose breasts had been sliced off. Such accounts from survivors are difficult to verify independently, but the stories I heard in the camps match what human rights groups and the United Nations have discovered: gruesome reports of rape, arson and murder at the hands of Myanmar’s military, other security forces and Buddhist vigilantes.

Shelter from the Slaughter Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar are now living in refugee camps across the border in southern Bangladesh. To accommodate the influx, large tracts of land have been stripped of vegetation, making way for refugee housing. Balukhali, above, is one of the larger settlements. | Szymon Barylski for Politico Magazine

It’s a moral disaster, but also a geopolitical one. The violence against the Rohingya has inflamed ethnic and religious tensions across South and Southeast Asia, while also fraying diplomatic ties between Myanmar and the world’s Muslim-majority countries. It is straining the resources of Bangladesh, already desperately poor, and deepening the global migration crisis, which has seen a record 65 million people displaced from their homes. There are also fears that Rohingya youth could radicalize and join Islamist terrorist groups, who, even before 2017, were increasingly mentioning the Rohingya in their propaganda.

The violence has also upended what was supposed to be an American success story—the much-fêted opening to an increasingly democratic Myanmar, championed by a U.S. president, Barack Obama, eager to make friends of old enemies willing to change their behavior. For Obama’s former advisers, some of whom fought to lift sanctions on Myanmar, it is a slow-rolling disaster that gnaws at their consciences. The country’s political transition has meant new rights, freedoms and opportunities for millions in Myanmar. But for the Rohingya, it has meant despair. “Whenever I close my eyes, I see the people I lost,” one 21-year-old Rohingya rape victim said. “I don’t see any future.”

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Washington, D.C., was having a party.

On September 15, 2016, America’s political and business elite gathered at the Four Seasons in Georgetown to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s beloved icon of democracy, on her visit to the U.S. capital. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who had spent years under house arrest for resisting Myanmar’s military junta, had seen her party win a surprisingly free election in 2015 and was now the country’s de facto civilian leader.

The day before the Four Seasons bash, Obama had pledged to do away with the last major economic sanctions on Myanmar—the final big step in a rapprochement that had begun in 2009 and included a significant easing of sanctions in 2012. Sitting next to Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, Obama cited the progress the country had made toward democracy. Scrapping sanctions, he said, “is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.” In her speech the following evening, Suu Kyi urged businesses to invest in Myanmar to help its people as well as its nascent political transition. “We have to prove that democracy works, and what will prove that democracy works is a visible and sustainable improvement in the lives of our people,” she said. The mood in the room was giddy: Halfway across the world, democracy was on the march.

But not everyone in the crowd was optimistic. Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, believed Myanmar’s military still controlled too many levers of power to merit clearing sanctions. Malinowski had spent a good deal of time in 2016 pushing back against Obama administration colleagues who wanted the sanctions gone—marking the latest battle in a larger internal struggle over Myanmar policy that had intensified over the previous seven years. On one side was Malinowski’s bureau at the State Department, which worried the U.S. opening was moving too fast; on the other was the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, which was happy with the rapid pace of the rapprochement, and Ben Rhodes, the influential Obama aide known for pushing the narrative that America should engage rogue regimes in hopes of changing their behavior. Ultimately, Obama had sided with the Rhodes camp.

Desperate Circumstances The sheer number of people and the limited infrastructure have led to filthy conditions in the camps. There is almost no privacy. | Szymon Barylski for Politico Magazine

The disagreements confused Suu Kyi, who, even after Obama’s announcement, was receiving mixed messages about just how far the U.S. could and would go in eliminating the economic penalties—a situation made all the more perplexing by the complications of sanctions law. Suu Kyi herself hadn’t always taken a firm position on sanctions, partly because she worried lifting them would benefit Myanmar’s generals, who are major players in the country’s economy. When Suu Kyi saw Malinowski at the Four Seasons, she asked for some clarity on the U.S. debate. “She was like, ‘What the hell? What’s going on here? What’s the reality?’” Malinowski recalled. “I said, ‘Look, at this point there’s not much more I can say. So whatever it is that you want us to do, you need to make that clear to the White House.’”

Suddenly, Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, interrupted the conversation, apparently worried that Malinowski was assuring Suu Kyi some sanctions could stay in place. Marciel, a proponent of clearing as many sanctions as possible, tried to cut off the discussion, telling Suu Kyi that it was too late to reverse the president’s decision, according to Malinowski’s recollection. (Marciel confirmed he was there, but declined to share details other than to say, “At that point, the president had already made his decision and announcement on lifting of sanctions.”) It was a heated moment, enough so that others in the room noticed before things calmed down.

In the end, Obama fulfilled his pledge. In the final months of 2016, as he prepared to make way for Donald Trump, Obama went about as far as he legally could to scrap economic sanctions on Myanmar in hopes of spurring an economic and democratic flowering.

Malinowski and his allies at State weren’t alone in doubting Obama’s decision. As the administration rolled back sanctions in late 2016, Myanmar security forces began murdering Rohingya in a vicious campaign that displaced tens of thousands—and human rights activists were appalled. They worried that Obama was so determined to fortify his legacy of outreach to adversaries that he was ignoring how far from a true democracy Myanmar still was, and how splintered a nation it remained. Some feared that the 2016 violence was a harbinger of far worse to come for the Rohingya.

The activists sent letters, arranged grass-roots campaigns and communicated their concerns in meetings with Obama aides. “We kept warning them that with each sanction they lifted, it emboldened the military to commit more human rights abuses,” said Jennifer Quigley, an official with Human Rights First who has extensive Myanmar experience. “And the Rohingya were exceptionally vulnerable, to the point where we warned they could face a genocide.”

Today, as those fears are coming true, Obama-era officials on all sides of the debate have been looking back on the decisions they made, asking themselves if they could have done anything more to prevent Myanmar’s bloody purge. Among the dozens of officials and analysts I spoke to, there’s no real consensus as to what, if anything, went wrong. But there is a sense that Obama administration officials were overly optimistic about what democracy could mean for all the people of Myanmar—that they didn’t understand the special peril Rohingya Muslims faced in a country with such complicated ethnic and religious dynamics. And all said they worry about what will happen to the Rohingya under the presidency of Trump, who has been openly hostile toward Muslims and downplayed human rights in his dealings with other countries.

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted you could push out 700,000 people,” said Derek Mitchell, who was U.S. ambassador to Myanmar for most of Obama’s second term. “We never felt that there was an imminent danger that required us to forgo a diplomatic engagement approach for a more hostile policy. We didn’t want to get rid of everything over an issue that we didn’t know would actually blow up this bad.”

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The dire circumstances of 1.1 million Rohingya might not have been a deal-breaker when it came to U.S. engagement with Myanmar. But the fate of one woman was.

Starting Over Rohingya Muslims feel more free to practice their faith in Bangladesh than in Myanmar. Above, a man helps build a mosque at the Balukhali camp. | Szymon Barylski for Politico Magazine

Suu Kyi, a slender, elegant politician often called simply “The Lady,” is the daughter of Aung San, a beloved nationalist leader who played a key role in negotiating what was then Burma’s independence from Britain in the late 1940s before he was assassinated. In 1962, while Suu Kyi was based in India with her diplomat mother, a military coup overthrew the Burmese government and ushered in a long period of oppression. The junta silenced dissent and pursued a mix of isolationism, nationalism and socialism that deepened the country’s poverty. The military leaders also engaged in a brutal civil war against an array of armed ethnic groups that displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Eventually, the junta changed Burma’s name to Myanmar, partly as a break from its colonial past, and embarked on bizarre projects like carving a new capital out of the jungle deep in the country’s interior.

In 1988, Suu Kyi—by then living in Britain with her husband, whom she had met while studying at Oxford University, and their two children—returned to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother. Within months, the high-profile daughter of Aung San had become a leader in the country’s pro-democracy movement, helping establish a new political party, the National League for Democracy, and demanding more rights and freedoms through massive demonstrations. In July 1989, the junta put Suu Kyi under house arrest. The next year, with Suu Kyi still detained, the NLD won resoundingly in a general election, but the military refused to give up power.

Suu Kyi’s peaceful resistance to the government, which kept her under some form of arrest for 15 of 21 years, made her an international hero and endeared her to Western leaders. U.S. officials, who began increasingly using sanctions to penalize the junta for its anti-democratic actions, based much of their policy toward Myanmar on how Suu Kyi and her party were treated. For example, in 2003, after an alleged junta-backed attack on Suu Kyi’s motorcade, followed by her re-arrest, Congress passed new sanctions. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush called the punishment “a clear signal to Burma’s ruling junta that it must release Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, along with all other political prisoners, and move down the path toward democracy.”

Many scholars argue, however, that Myanmar’s central challenge—and the key to understanding it—is not about democracy, but whether the country can overcome its mind-boggling number of ethnic and religious conflicts. For decades, the central government and military, both dominated by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Bamar (or Burman), have battled an array of militias—sometimes thousands strong, often in uniform—fighting for the rights of the country’s various ethnic groups. Much of the fighting occurs along Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand, resource-rich areas where some ethnic groups, such as the Kachin and the Kayin, control significant territory.

But even within Myanmar’s complex patchwork of ethnic and religious identities, the Rohingya stand apart. They are uniquely hated—singled out for their Muslim faith and dark, South Asian features. Many people in Myanmar view the country, which is nearly 90 percent Buddhist, as a critical bastion for Buddhism in a region where Islam has been spreading for centuries. And they see the Rohingya as malevolent interlopers out to upend those demographics—suspicions fueled by the perception that the Rohingya have unusually high birthrates. Myanmar’s leaders do not count the Rohingya among the nation’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Most refuse even to use the term “Rohingya”; to do so would give legitimacy to a people most Burmese insist are illegal migrants from what is now Bangladesh. But the more pressure they’ve faced, the more the Rohingya have clung to the label.

The exact origins of the name, and the people, are disputed. The Rohingya say many in their community can trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries to when Rakhine, a long strip of land on Myanmar’s western coast, was an independent kingdom. Other Rohingya ancestors are said to have migrated there during the colonial days, when the British encouraged migrants from British India to move to Burma. Muslims were at times favored by the British, earning resentment from Buddhists. World War II also exacerbated communal tensions in Rakhine state, as Muslims largely sided with the British while many Buddhists sided with the Japanese.

After the 1962 military coup, the junta launched a long campaign of oppression against the Rohingya that escalated at times into violent military crackdowns, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. A 1982 law effectively stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, and further laws and regulations restricted the group’s ability to marry and have children. Today, after years of junta and Buddhist propaganda, the Rohingya are loathed by most people in the country. In impoverished Rakhine state, the Rohingya also are frequent targets of their neighbors the Rakhine Buddhists, another ethnic minority that faces discrimination from the Bamar. Some Rakhine Buddhists aspire to expel all Rohingya Muslims from their state and gain more independence from the central government.

Fighting Hunger Rohingya refugees regularly line up at food distribution points in the camps in Bangladesh to wait for packages of rice, lentils and other staples. The U.N.’s World Food Program provides the bulk of the rations—and the United States has donated millions of dollars for food relief—but local groups also step in to donate edibles. Still, malnutrition is common among the Rohingya, many of whom led impoverished lives in Myanmar. | Szymon Barylski for Politico Magazine

Many Rohingya have been persecuted for so long that they have no memory of anything else. When I traveled through the camps in Bangladesh, I met a woman named Gulfaraz, who estimated her age as 85. Gulfaraz was among the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in the late 1970s during a crackdown the Myanmar military called “Operation Dragon King.” She eventually returned to Myanmar. In the violence in 2017, she saw several of her relatives shot dead in her village by security forces who shouted: “You’re Bengalis! Go back to your own country! Leave this place!”

“I’ve thought of myself as Rohingya since I was a child,” she said on Christmas Day. “I feel burning pain when I think about my family. But I fear if I go back, even to look for their bodies, I will be killed.”

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By the early 2000s, Myanmar’s generals seemed ready for a change. After decades of totalitarian rule, they adopted a road map to what they called a “disciplined democracy.” And in 2008, they held a flawed referendum on a constitution that, while still keeping the military entrenched in power—including giving its representatives 25 percent of parliamentary seats—allowed for partial civilian rule.

The changes in Myanmar dovetailed with the arrival of an American president intrigued by the possibility of bringing rogue regimes in from the cold, and determined to prove that engaging dictators was a more effective way to promote democracy than spurning them. Obama said as much in his first inaugural address, promising authoritarian leaders such as Myanmar’s generals that America would “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” He was also determined to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, a vast region he viewed as the future of geopolitics. The need to manage the rise of China, long Myanmar’s chief patron, and reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea—which was believed to have provided missile and other defense know-how to Myanmar—added hard-headed reasons to try to midwife a democratic transformation.

“This is a country of, like, 56 million people, 55.9 million of whom had nothing to do with the government. So, there was the sense that, if there’s a possibility to effect real change, we should be in the game and not on the sidelines,” recalled Colin Willett, who dealt extensively with Myanmar while on the National Security Council and at the State Department. “The president’s attitude was: better to try and fail than not try.”

In 2009, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department led a review of Myanmar policy that concluded that diplomatic engagement should deepen but sanctions should stay in place. In November 2010, Suu Kyi and her party boycotted Myanmar’s general elections, which Western powers declared a sham. But days after the vote, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest to great global fanfare. And upon taking power in March 2011, the country’s new president, former general Thein Sein, began introducing reforms at a pace that astonished even hardened skeptics. Media censorship was eased, a new labor law permitted unions and strikes, and restrictions on the internet were largely lifted. Myanmar also began releasing political prisoners, thanks to a major push by the human rights bureau at the State Department. Ultimately, around 1,500 political prisoners were released.

AN ETHNIC PATCHWORK Myanmar’s 135 recognized ethnic groups are grouped into eight “major national races,” shown above. The Rohingya, who predominantly live in Rakhine state, are not formally recognized by the government. | Illustration by Jane Webster

Things were changing so rapidly that the Obama administration could barely keep up. The U.S. approach to Myanmar was initially based on a concept called “action for action,” meaning that Myanmar would have to take a positive step for the U.S. to respond in kind. A “matrix” was even drawn up charting out matching actions, sources involved said. But the chart was quickly outdated because Myanmar officials moved faster than the Americans expected. “There was a real sense, too, that we had a window and that it wouldn’t stay open forever,” Willett said. “The Burmese, you’d meet with them, and it was just shocking how eager they were to do things differently. They’d talk to you, they’d discuss the way things could be changed. They just were like ‘OK, I’m going to tell you everything I know.’”

Clinton visited Myanmar in late 2011, the first U.S. secretary of state to do so in more than 50 years. She and Suu Kyi, two of the world’s most famous women, wore white as they met for dinner, then hugged and held hands the next day before reporters at the Nobel laureate’s lakeside home. When parliamentary by-elections were held in April 2012, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won most of the seats. In the days that followed, the U.S. took its diplomatic engagement with Myanmar to a new level. Clinton announced the administration would begin easing sanctions on Myanmar’s access to U.S. investment and financial services, and that it would reopen a USAID mission in the country. The administration also named Mitchell, who had been serving as a special envoy to Myanmar, as U.S. ambassador—the first person to hold the post since 1990, the year the junta refused to recognize the NLD’s historic election win. As the months wore on in 2012, the administration made another momentous decision: Obama would visit Myanmar that November.

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The heady talk of progress glazed over serious policy struggles behind the scenes as the Obama administration debated just how far to go in peeling back economic sanctions. U.S. officials across the board remained suspicious of the Myanmar military’s true motives. But, according to people involved in the 2012 discussions, officials in the East Asia bureau at the State Department pushed for quicker, broader sanctions relief, while those in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, along with many outside rights activists and some U.S. lawmakers, urged a more cautious approach.

Those who wanted fast and wide sanctions relief argued that economic advances could boost democratic institutions, including Suu Kyi’s political party, by proving that political reforms could lead to prosperity among ordinary people. Plus, advocates of easing sanctions noted, the longstanding U.S. penalties hadn’t really hurt their intended target, the junta; Myanmar’s generals were well off in an otherwise poor country. Some military leaders had indicated to U.S. officials that they wanted to open up their country to the West not because they cared about the sanctions’ effect on their own fortunes but because Myanmar was economically trailing its neighbors. They also resented that China was throwing its weight around and saw the U.S. as a potential balancing force. “What they said was, ‘We want to take Burma from being impoverished up to the level of a Malaysia or even a Singapore. To do that we need American businesses, not Chinese,’” said Daniel Russel, the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council in 2012 who later went on to lead the State Department’s East Asia bureau.

American businesses eager to explore a near-virgin market, despite Myanmar’s exceptional poverty and limited infrastructure, were also pressuring the administration to open up the country to U.S. investment. As sanctions were eventually eased, Coca-Cola jumped in with its sugary drinks, and General Electric started exploring the Myanmar health care market. (Still, U.S. business investment in Myanmar today lags well behind several other countries.)

Those wary of easing sanctions in 2012 had their own arguments. Many understood the desire to reward Myanmar for its reforms, but they felt the administration was offering too much economic relief too fast. They worried that the White House, which loved to use the phrase “Burma’s democratic transition,” was blind to just how far from a genuine democracy the country really was. The military did not answer to the civilian leadership, controlled vast portions of the government and gave no sign it planned to exit the political arena. This group acknowledged that sanctions offered little leverage in Myanmar, but, they argued, why give up even that limited leverage? “It was the diplomatic equivalent of burning money,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. “The Burmese junta ran the country for a half a century. They’d completely infected every sector. There needed to be a sword hanging over their head to keep them motivated.” Plus, easing the sanctions would send a symbolic signal that all was well in Myanmar, when it really wasn’t, the pro-sanctions advocates maintained.

Willett, who was on the National Security Council at the time, remembers one emotional roundtable with several NGOs in mid-2012 at which Obama administration officials discussed easing the sanctions. Human rights activists present pointed out that Myanmar’s military was still brutalizing ethnic minorities; at the time, the armed forces were pursuing an offensive against the Kachin after the collapse of a 17-year cease-fire. “People were crying. People were just so upset with us,” Willett said. In one private encounter with an activist not long afterward, things got personal. “I’ve never been called a baby-killer before,” Willett recalled. “I was really kind of shaken by the whole thing.”

The result of the wrangling was a set of compromises. For instance, the move to ease U.S. financial and investment restrictions on Myanmar did not permit new investment with the country’s armed forces. It also was coupled with an Obama executive order that gave the Treasury secretary authority to sanction people in Myanmar who undermined democratic reforms or abused human rights. State Department human rights officials also successfully fought to require U.S. companies newly investing more than $500,000 in Myanmar to issue reports detailing how they addressed labor, environmental and various social challenges there. Those same officials lost out, though, when they tried to bar U.S. oil and gas companies from taking advantage of the eased investment rules.

U.S. officials weren’t thinking much about the Rohingya in early 2012. They knew the group existed and was under pressure, but, sources indicated to me, they didn’t consider the possibility that the Rohingya were so despised that they would be excluded from the benefits of change. They assumed that Myanmar’s pledges to reconcile with armed ethnic groups would also cover the Rohingya.

That’s not because they were never warned otherwise. In March 2012, as the administration’s debate over sanctions heated up, U Kyaw Min, a prominent member of the Rohingya community who had been freed after years as a political prisoner, met with a State Department official. Kyaw Min viewed Myanmar’s desire to improve ties with the United States as a special opportunity to negotiate more security for his people—and to signal that the U.S. was watching out for them. He worried about what could happen without that protection.

When I recently saw him in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Kyaw Min told me that during that meeting he’d conveyed a straightforward request: Don’t relax sanctions on Myanmar unless the Rohingya are given back their citizenship. His request went nowhere.

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During the second half of 2012, as life improved for many of the people of Myanmar, the Rohingya’s already tenuous standing took an ugly hit.

In June, a few months before Obama would make his first visit to the country, tensions between the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists exploded after three Muslim men were blamed for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Villagers and vigilantes from both sides staged riots and fought each other, but as time went on, according to human rights groups, security forces stood aside or even joined in when the Buddhists attacked Muslims. In July, as Obama made the sanctions easing official, Thein Sein suggested that not only di