The Mighty Fall of Aung San Suu Kyi, Once an Icon of Democracy and Peace

The Nobel laureate who defended the Burmese military's brutality against the Rohingyas is now looking at jail time.

8 min read

A court in Myanmar has sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to two years in prison on charges of inciting public unrest and breaching COVID-19 regulations, Reuters reported on Tuesday, 7 December.

The initial verdict, pronounced on Monday, had sentenced her to four years in prison for the same, before halving the sentence one day later.

Suu Kyi, who was educated at the Oxford University, and Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College, and Convent of Jesus and Mary School, is, however, on trial for nine more charges and could face up to 102 years in jail if found guilty.

She was detained by Myanmar's military, officially known as the Tatmadaw, after the February coup d'état that overthrew the civilian government earlier this year and established a military dictatorship.

This will not, however, be Suu Kyi's first taste of prison life or detention. After all, she was kept under house arrest for years prior to her release in 2010.

In this explainer, we look into her tumultuous political career that has been characterised by protests, arrests, elections, and political controversies.

We start with her rise in politics during the late '80s, following which we look at the timeline of her house arrest, during which she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Then comes her role as the state counsellor of Myanmar, and her defence of the Myanmar government with respect to the exodus of Rohingya Muslims that started in 2017.

Finally, we move on to the latest developments in the country following the 2021 coup, and the variety of charges that have been levelled against her by the Tatmadaw.


The 8888 Uprising and Suu Kyi's Claim to Fame

Born in a village outside Rangoon, Suu Kyi rose to political prominence during the 8888 Uprisings, a pro-democracy and anti-military rebellion that peaked on 8 August 1988.

For context, ever since the 1962 Burmese coup d'état, General Ne Win had been ruling Myanmar, military-style in what was essentially a one-party state (according to Burmese law too).

Ne Win was the President of Myanmar till 1981 but he had de facto control over the military and the government by virtue of being the Chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the only legal party in the country.

By 1988, however, Burmese people, especially the youth, protested the Ne Win regime due to deteriorating economy and the widespread police brutality.

On 23 July 1988, Ne Win resigned because of the protests but still pulled the strings of the military from behind the scenes.

After the 8888 uprising, on 26 August 1988, Suu Kyi gave a powerful speech at a rally in the Capital, demanding a democratic government in Myanmar.

In a speech that would become the foundation of her political career, she told the crowd that she “could not, as her [my] father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that is going on.”

“This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for national independence," she said.

Her father, Aung San, fought against the British in alliance with the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.

He also founded the Burmese Army that we know today and negotiated Burma's independence from the United Kingdom in 1947. He was assassinated by his Burmese rivals the same year.


Nobel Prize and House Arrest

Suu Kyi co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988, a liberal democratic political party, and served as its Chairperson.

While campaigning all around Myanmar in support of democracy, she was placed under house arrest by the post-Ne Win military junta.

In 1990, the military conducted general elections for the country, in which, despite her being locked up in her house, Suu Kyi's NLD emerged as the clear winner with three-fifths of the total votes. This gave the party around 80% of the seats in the Parliament.

The military, however, refused to give up its power, nullified the election results, and maintained de facto control over the country.

Over the next 21 years, Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest, despite being released several times only to be put back in with arbitrary justifications.

After being under house arrest in Yangon for six years, Suu Kyi was released on 10 July 1995 but met the same fate in September 2000 for allegedly defying travel restrictions, reported Human Rights Watch, an international NGO that advocates for human rights all over the globe.

Despite being unconditionally released in May 2002, she was arrested once again in 2003 after the Depayin massacre that occurred on 30 May that year.

On that day, more than 70 people, who were either members of or associated with the NLD, were killed by a mob that was allegedly backed by the military.

Thanks to the man who was driving her car, Suu Kyi managed to make it out alive, according to reports filed by the Democratic Voice of Burma, which is one of Myanmar's most significant media organisations.

During this arrest, she was held in secret detention for about three months and then placed under house arrest again, which was extended by the military junta in May 2007.

By December 2009, the Supreme Court of Myanmar agreed to hear an appeal filed by Suu Kyi's lawyers regarding the extension of the house arrest order.

Finally, on 13 November 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.


2016 Election and Holding Power

Suu Kyi announced in 2012 that she would run for presidency in Myanmar's 2015 elections, despite the Constitution prohibiting someone like her from the post of presidency by virtue of her being the widow and mother of foreigners.

These provisions that seemed to be drafted to specifically stop her from being a legal candidate were drafted by the military itself, and the Constitution that contains them has been effective in Myanmar since 2008.

As The Economist argued, "biggest blockage on her road to the presidency was a Constitution written in part to prevent her ever getting there."

Suu Kyi announced before the elections that she was well aware of the constitutional roadblocks, and she would be the one holding real power in any NLD-led government.

The NLD won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections and on 30 March 2016, she became the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government led by President Htin Kyaw.

She also became the Minister of education, and the Minister of Electric Power and Energy, only to relinquish those two ministries and become the "state counsellor" of Myanmar, a position that the President created just for her.

As state counsellor, she essentially played the same role that the Prime Minister plays in a country like India.

Despite being a hugely popular pro-democracy advocate all around the world, Suu Kyi was criticised for her inability to improve the economy or to address ethnic issues within the country.

Perhaps the thing that Suu Kyi will always be infamous for is her handling of the Rohingya crisis that erupted in 2017, a crisis that could amount to genocide, according to the United Nations (UN).


Legitimising the Rohingya Exodus

The Rohingyas have a long history of being persecuted in Myanmar. A more detailed story on that subject can be found here.

After Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, she had numerous chances to present herself as an inclusive leader who would work to reduce ethnic tensions in the country, so as to create a less hostile environment for the Rohingyas.

When Myanmar's Rakhine State witnessed violent riots in 2012, which led to the displacement of thousands of Rohingyas, Suu Kyi said nothing.

When thousands more were displaced from Rakhine State in 2015 creating a refugee crisis of terrifying proportions, Suu Kyi said nothing.

And when the exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas began in late 2017, Suu Kyi defended the actions of the military to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the highest court of the UN, calling the reactions of the UN and other international advocacy organisations as exaggerated. She never once uttered the word "Rohingya", which is consistent with the state of Myanmar's stance that no such ethnic community exists in the country.

By 2017, calls to remove her Nobel Peace Prize became louder and louder but the Norwegian Nobel Committee or NNC (the organisation that selects the recipients of the prize each year) refused to do so, The Guardian reported.

Arguing that the prestigious prize is "awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement of the past", Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the NNC said that "Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize for her fight for democracy and freedom up until 1991, the year she was awarded the prize."

Responding to accusation of genocide at the ICJ, Suu Kyi argued that "genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis" and that "inter-communal violence" was a product of fear created by the past military dictatorships, the New York Times reported.

Alternating between silence and denial of the atrocities committed by the military against the Rohingyas has stained the reputation of a woman who was once an icon of democracy and peace.

It is important to acknowledge that the Tatmadaw exercises more power than Suu Kyi, and the latter has to tread lightly with respect to something as sensitive as the ethnic issue because of the military's reputation of cracking down on anyone who dissents to its activities.

George Monbiot, a weekly columnist for The Guardian, however, wrote that, "as well as a number of practical and legal measures that she could use directly to restrain these atrocities, she possesses one power in abundance: the power to speak out."

Suu Kyi could have listened to her own Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from 2012, in which she said that her objective was "to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, and a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace."


2021 Coup, Arrest, and Trial

After a landslide victory in the 2020 elections, Suu Kyi and the NLD were all set for a second term, before the Tatmadaw, led by Min Aung Hlaing, swooped in and declared the results of the 2020 general elections held in November that year.

Suu Kyi and members of NLD, along with others who were democratically elected to the Parliament, were all detained in the coup that was carried out in the first week of February 2021.

Pro-democracy protests erupted in the country, and the response of the Tatmadaw was characterised by extreme brutality.

More than 1,300 people have been killed by the military and more than 10,000 protesters have been arrested, according to the the New York Times.

A variety of criminal cases were filed against Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest and was incommunicado until she was seen in person during a court hearing in May 2021 while facing an "incitement to sedition" charge against her.

Seven months since then, Suu Kyi has 11 charges against her, some of which, according to Reuters, include:

  • Violation of COVID-19 regulations during the NLD's campaign in September 2020 for the November elections (Natural Disaster Management Law, Article 25)

  • Intent to incite, after the NLD asked the world to not recognise the government established by the Tatmadaw (Penal Code, Article 505[b])

While she was convicted of the above mentioned two charges on 6 December, Suu Kyi is still on trial for nine more, which could culminate in a prison sentence that lasts up to 102 years.

Suu Kyi's supporters insist that the charges against her are all bogus and have been fabricated to permanently remove her from Myanmar's politics, thereby removing the single largest threat to the dominance of the Tatmadaw.

The UN has criticised the "sham trial" of the Suu Kyi, calling it politically motivated, while Maw Htun Aung, deputy minister of the exiled National Unity Government of Myanmar, which has offices in the US and UK among other countries, said that he didn't "expect anything out of this broken justice system", Al Jazeera reported.

It is not just the justice system. Myanmar's society and politics has been characterised by military dominance since the '60s.

Even as pro-democracy protests continue to rock Myanmar, the Tatmadaw cracks down with lethal force and legal impunity.

And with the international community limiting its response to mere statements of condemnation, it is clear that the dark days of Myanmar that began after the February coup, are far from over.

(With inputs form Reuters, NYT, BBC, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Democratic Voice of Burma and Human Rights Watch.)

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Topics:  Myanmar   Explainer   Tatmadaw 

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