It may be an impossible task to restore Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation, but Burma’s generals have made a sterling effort this week, after they sentenced her to at least two years in jail.
This time last year Suu Kyi, a former Nobel peace prize winner, was a fallen icon. Her lack of sympathy and concern for the plight of Rohingyas in her country and, worse, her defence of the army’s brutal repression and massacres of them (she even appeared on the army’s behalf at the International Court of Justice in the Hague) had disillusioned her admirers. Many of the peace awards she received were revoked, including the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, Amnesty’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, South Korea’s Gwangju Human Rights Award and the City of London’s freedom of the city.
Even the second landslide victory Suu Kyi won last year did little to restore her standing. Instead it proved that she had sacrificed her principles and noble stance against Burma’s regime for electoral popularity. The world turned its back.
Then, in February, the generals acted. Accusing Suu Kyi of electoral fraud, they annulled the election results and removed her from power. In one stroke, ‘The Lady’, as the Burmese people reverentially call her, became the face of her country’s crushed democracy. That was enough for the world to once again focus on Suu Kyi.
The generals, however, were not done. Their fear of Suu Kyi is far greater than the outside world realises. It has became apparent that they are not just threatened by her almost unshakeable hold on the Burmese people but they also live in dread of her political resurrection. They sense that even though she has spent a decade working alongside them, if restored, she would look for revenge.
So, over the last ten months, they’ve concocted 11 charges against her, which encompass the ludicrous, the unbelievable and even the impossible. The generals were desperate for her to be convicted because, under the constitution they made for the country, anyone sentenced to prison cannot hold public office. Clearly, the earlier bar they had to prevent her becoming president, that her children are foreign nationals, was no longer sufficient.
In February, she was charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies and breaking Covid-19 restrictions during last year’s election campaign. In June, she was accused of accepting bribes in gold and cash. In November, they added further unspecified claims of corruption. On top of all this, she has supposedly breached the Official Secrets Act and committed electoral fraud. Dr Sasa, a spokesperson for the shadow civilian government that challenges the junta from hiding, said the generals ‘are preparing for 104 years of sentences for her’. He added that ‘they want her to die in prison’. If the junta succeed, no doubt she will.
The trial Aung San Suu Kyi has already faced was a sham. She barely had access to her lawyers and since October they’ve been gagged. They can’t speak to journalists who, in turn, can’t cover the hearings. It’s reported that her two adult sons, who live in the US and UK, ‘have had no direct contact with her since the weekend before the coup.’ Never mind the outside world, Suu Kyi can barely communicate with anyone in Burma.
Perhaps to show his magnanimity, the country’s bemedalled military dictator reduced her four year sentence to two years this week and said it can be served at the location she’s presently detained at. We currently have no idea where Suu Kyi is though, although it’s said she has been allowed to keep her dog and household staff.
Such kindness is hardly likely to impress anyone when you consider the charges against her. One charge is that she broke Covid-19 restrictions when she waved to supporters outside her residence last year, whilst wearing a mask and face shield. Even more implausibly, a statement issued by her National League for Democracy, calling for public opposition to the February coup two weeks after she had been incarcerated and was no longer in touch with her colleagues and party, was charged as ‘incitement’.
So, not surprisingly, the world has begun to speak. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, and Liz Truss have ‘urged the regime to release her’. So too has Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner. Even Amnesty, so aggrieved a few years ago, has appealed for her release.
What must worry the generals is that powerful friends in the country’s neighbourhood, who had precious little to say in February during the coup, are now expressing something close to criticism. India, the world’s largest democracy, kept its lips sealed when Suu Kyi was stripped of power, arrested and jailed. Its gratitude to the Burmese junta who helped tackle India’s north-eastern insurgents surpassed any commitment to the constitutional principles of democracy, civil rule and fair trial. No longer. This week the Indian government cleared its throat and found its voice. Perhaps, with President Biden’s ‘Summit of Democracies’ starting this week, they felt a need to speak out.
Of course, much of the international concern is focused more on Burma’s vanquished democracy than its lapsed heroine. But many believe the two are inextricably linked. Which is why Suu Kyi is benefitting and the generals can’t prevent that.
She’ll never be restored to the pinnacle she once gloriously occupied. Back then she was compared to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. She did, after all, spend 15 years under house arrest, with only an out-of-tune family heirloom piano for comfort. Now she doesn’t even have that. She’s 76 and alone.
But Suu Kyi is no longer forgotten – the generals are keeping her memory alive. So it’s just possible a new legend of ‘The Lady’ might emerge, even though it’s hard to forget her Rohingya past.
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