After five years as the de facto head of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself in a familiar place: under house arrest as she faces trumped-up charges from a military dictatorship, along with her party, the National League for democracy (NLD), the on the verge of dissolution.
On Monday, four months after the military seized power in a coup, the hugely popular politician will be tried in a Naypyidaw court on five counts, including illegal possession of walkie-talkies and violation of restrictions on coronaviruses during his election campaign. Military officials have also charged her with corruption and violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
There is a sense of finality about this confrontation between Aung San Suu Kyi and army chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing.
At 75, Aung San Suu Kyi faces prison terms that could put her in prison for the rest of her life, permanently removing her from a political arena she has defined for decades. Meanwhile, many of his supporters have gone beyond his historic calls for non-violent resistance and gradual reform, instead endorsing armed revolt and the total overthrow of the military regime.
“This time around, there is no indication that the regime is considering releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, allowing him to communicate with his supporters or using him as a bargaining chip in his dealings with the outside world. On the contrary, Min Aung Hlaing wants a free hand to shape the political landscape without his influence and that of the NLD, ”said Richard Horsey, a political analyst with decades of experience in Myanmar.
Although she has been largely cut off from the outside world over the past four months, she still occupies a central role in the current political crisis. Before the generals violently cracked down on the protests, killing more than 850 civilians, posters and banners depicting Aung San Suu Kyi’s face were a mainstay of most protests.
“It is far too early to write it off. She is without a doubt the most popular political figure in the country by far, no one else comes close, ”said Thant Myint-U, historian and author of Hidden History of Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a political force during the 1988 uprisings against a previous military regime, perfectly prepared to take the lead in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement during a time of instability. Daughter of independence icon Aung San, she had just returned from the United Kingdom, where she had studied at Oxford and married a Briton.
She has become synonymous with Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and earned the respect of millions of people by sacrificing her freedom and security for the cause, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She spent years under house arrest and survived a 2003 assassination attempt that killed dozens if not hundreds. Aung San Suu Kyi’s education and international recognition has also been a source of admiration for many of his followers.
But if it was a force in the eyes of many, it was an insult to the ultra-nationalist army, also known as Tatmadaw, which often made sexist slurs against the “foreigner’s wife.”
In 2008, before allowing elections, the military regime drafted a new constitution that allowed it to retain control of several key institutions and guaranteed it 25% of seats in parliament. He also added a clause prohibiting anyone with a foreign husband or children from serving as president, which many saw as aimed directly at Aung San Suu Kyi.
With the help of a constitutional lawyer named Ko Ni, she found a way around this ban, assuming the role of state councilor after the NLD’s first electoral victory in 2015. Two years later, Ko Ni was beaten down.
But while she was a global superstar as an activist, once in office many of her biggest supporters were disappointed.
In 2017, hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh as the military unleashed a brutal crackdown in western Rakhine state.
The Nobel laureate did not condemn the actions of the military and after a genocide case was brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague traveled to the Netherlands to defend what the generals had done.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s national popularity only increased as she transitioned from dissident to national leader. Internationally, she fell dramatically out of favor as a result of the violence against the Rohingya, in which she was seen as an accomplice in denying the extent of the abuses and defending the military, ”Horsey said.
Activist and protest leader Thinzar Shunlei Yi is one of many young human rights defenders who grew up idolizing Aung San Suu Kyi, before being disappointed with his tenure in power.
“She was the reason I became a woman human rights defender,” she said. But as violence against the Rohingya escalated, Thinzar Shunlei Yi became one of the few people to speak out against her, putting her at odds with her hero and her host of supporters.
“I was upfront against her and had a lot of backlash,” she said.
Calls for radical change
It was not only during the Rohingya crisis that Aung San Suu Kyi failed to live up to expectations. “She was also seen as abandoning her human rights principles when she was in government in other ways, including her treatment of free media, civil society and the rights of ethnic minorities,” Horsey said.
When two Reuters journalists arrested for exposing military killings of Rohingya civilians, Aung San Suu Kyi said the case “had nothing to do with freedom of speech.” During his tenure, journalists and Facebook users were charged with criticizing NLD politicians.
With NLD leaders dispersed or imprisoned after the coup, more progressive activists like Thinzar Shunlei Yi found themselves leading the initial resistance movement. They called for increasingly radical change, such as the abolition of the 2008 constitution, drafted by the military, the complete withdrawal of the military from politics, the reform of the discriminatory citizenship law of 1982. which helped make the Rohingya stateless, and armed revolution rather than nonviolent resistance.
These positions were ultimately approved by the government of national unity, a parallel government put in place by deputies elected in defiance of the military regime. Thinzar Shunlei Yi acknowledges that Aung San Suu Kyi is still “so influential” in the pro-democracy movement, but also fears that this influence is a double-edged sword.
“Even in this revolution where a lot of people are starving and running for their lives, people still think about her situation and mourn her,” she said. It can help motivate people even when they are under siege and are losing hope.
But Aung San Suu Kyi might not agree with armed revolt, abolishing the constitution, or accepting the Rohingya as citizens. “We wonder if she was saying something against the current revolution, things would go backwards,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi said.
While some have argued that Aung San Suu Kyi supported the military in the Rohingya crisis out of fear of a coup or the need to appeal to a nationalist electoral base, others say his position reflected simply his sincere beliefs on the matter.
“It is not at all clear that his stance on the Rohingya was politically motivated,” Horsey said. “But that certainly meant that at the time of the coup, she had a much diminished international reputation at a time when she was most in need of international support.”
“Full of optimism”
In total, Aung San Suu Kyi faces seven criminal charges; five in the capital Naypyidaw, one in the Supreme Court and a recently added corruption charge.
Her lawyers are among the only people to have had access to the detained leader since her arrest in February. The head of its legal team, Khin Maung Zaw, told Al Jazeera that they met with Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint on Monday, June 7. Khin Maung Zaw said the five cases in Naypyidaw were classified as “simple,” with hearings held every Monday and Tuesday until the end of the month.
For the Supreme Court case, he said the court characterized Aung San Suu Kyi as defending himself, which Khin Maung Zaw said was done “without his knowledge and without his consent.”
“She added that she told the people who detained her that she would not defend her case without a lawyer,” he said.
He said that while Aung San Suu Kyi was not satisfied with the arrangements made by the military to deliver her medication on a regular basis, she and the other two politicians “appeared to be in good health”.
Asked about her state of mind, Khin Maung Zaw said: “Unlike me, she is full of optimism.”
On Wednesday, the military revealed new corruption charges against Aung San Suu Kyi for allegedly accepting bribes and renting land at reduced rates, carrying an additional 15-year prison term.
Khin Maung Zaw says the latest accusation is “absurd” and “baseless”. “She may have flaws, but personal greed and corruption are not her traits,” he said, calling her “incorruptible.”
Given the nature of the trials, Thinzar Shunlei Yi encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi to “join the CDM” by “boycotting the justice system”. CDM stands for Civil Disobedience Movement, a mass strike by officials refusing to work under military rule.
“I do not trust the national judicial system and I do not believe that the [military] will do a fair trial for her and the other leaders, ”she said.
While the outcome of the trial seems inevitable, Thant Myint-U says what happened in Myanmar was not.
“There was no way the military would accept constitutional reform,” Thant Myint-U said. “But a visionary economic program that has attracted billions of new investments and created millions of new jobs, along with measures to combat discrimination, build a more inclusive national identity and work closely with civil society, would have may have outflanked the leadership of the army, and perhaps even gained a lot in the officer corps.