Put on trial by the generals who overthrew her elected government in a coup that cut short democratic reforms she had fought for decades to bring about, Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced on dec 06 to four years in prison. She was convicted of incitement and violations of a law on natural disasters in the first verdict in more than a dozen criminal cases filed against her since the Feb 01 military takeover. Suu Kyi is 76 years old.
Just 14 months before the coup, she had travelled to the U.N. International Court of Justice in the Hague to defend those same generals against charges of genocide over a 2017 military offensive that drove ethnic Rohingya Muslims out of Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s long struggle for democracy made her a heroine in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, and the mostly Western criticism she faced over the plight of the Rohingya had no negative impact on her popularity at home. Known as “the Lady”, Suu Kyi had fulfilled the dreams of millions when her party first won a landslide election in 2015 that established the Southeast Asian nation’s first civilian government in half a century.
She spent 15 years under house arrest in the struggle for democracy, but her administration had to cohabit with the generals who retained control of defence and security. That hybrid government failed to unite Myanmar’s many ethnic groups or end its decade-long civil wars, and Suu Kyi also oversaw tightening restrictions on the press and civil society while falling out with some former allies. But her second election victory in November unnerved the military – and it seized power on Feb. 1, alleging voter fraud by her National League for Democracy party despite rejection of the army’s claims by the election commission and monitors.
The first criminal cases filed against Suu Kyi included breaching coronavirus restrictions and possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies. More serious charges were to follow, including incitement, corruption and breaching the Official Secrets Act. She now faces a dozen cases with combined maximum sentences of more 100 years. Protesters have taken to the streets in her name, calling for the release of “Mother Suu” despite hundreds of killings and thousands of detentions since the coup.
Lady by the Lake
The daughter of independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when she was 2 years old, Suu Kyi spent much of her young life overseas. She attended Oxford University, met her husband, the British academic Michael Aris, and had two sons. Before they married, she asked Aris to promise he would not stop her if she needed to return home. In 1988, she got the phone call that changed their lives: her mother was dying.
In the capital Yangon, then known as Rangoon, she was swept up in a student-led revolution against the then junta that had plunged the country into a ruinous isolation. An eloquent public speaker, Suu Kyi became the leader of the new movement, quoting her father’s dream to “build up a free Burma”. The revolution was crushed, its leaders killed and jailed, and Suu Kyi was confined to her lakeside home. Speaking her name in public could earn her supporters a prison sentence, so they called her “the Lady”.
Slightly built and soft-spoken, she played a crucial role in keeping world attention on Myanmar’s junta and its human rights record, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Aris died in 1997, but she did not attend his funeral, fearful she would not be allowed to return. During a brief release from house arrest in 1998 she attempted to travel outside Yangon to visit supporters and was blocked by the army. She sat inside her van for several days and nights, despite dehydration in the sweltering heat, and was said to have caught rainwater in an open umbrella.
She survived an assassination attempt in 2003 when pro-military men wielding spikes and rods attacked a convoy she was travelling in, killing and wounding some of her supporters. The army again placed her under house arrest and from behind the gates, she gave weekly addresses to supporters, standing on rickety tables and talking about democracy under the watchful eyes of police.
A devout Buddhist, she sometimes spoke of her struggle in spiritual terms. In 2010, the military began a series of democratic reforms and Suu Kyi was released before thousands of weeping, cheering supporters. In the West, she was feted. Barack Obama became the first U.S president to visit Myanmar in 2012, calling her an “inspiration to people all around the world, including myself”. U.S economic sanctions on Myanmar were eased, though Suu Kyi remained cautious about the extent of reforms.
But the Western optimism generated by Suu Kyi’s 2015 election win evaporated two years later, when Rohingya militants attacked security forces and the military responded with an offensive that eventually expelled more than 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar. U.N. investigators in an August 2018 report said the Myanmar military had carried out killings and mass rape.
In December 2019, Suu Kyi defended the military operation before the U.N. International Court of Justice, describing it as a counterterrorism response and asking the court to dismiss a genocide accusation brought by Gambia.
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