The sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi up to four years in prison, after a show trial by the military junta in Myanmar, is a travesty. Myanmar’s deposed leader is a flawed and problematic figure – she failed to intervene and even defended the army during their persecution of the Rohingya – but Suu Kyi was democratically elected and had an overwhelming mandate from her people to govern. Although her fate is important, the bigger picture is the detention of thousands of other people, including numerous elected officials, by a cold-blooded and illegal junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi has won worldwide recognition and the Nobel Peace Prize as the leader of Myanmar’s democratic opposition since the 1980s. She spent 15 years under house arrest during the country’s military dictatorship. After her release in 2010, she shared power with the military for a decade. Her National League for Democracy won elections twice in 2015 and 2020, before the current junta took power in a coup last February. Suu Kyi, who held the office of state adviser, was detained along with President Win Myint and many others.
She has been charged several times with the illegal importation of walkie-talkies and storage equipment; take gold and cash as bribes; and corruption related to the purchase or rental of a helicopter. There is nothing to give credibility to these charges. Although the junta leader gave her a partial pardon and halved her four-year sentence, the world must protest against her detention and the proceedings of the kangaroo court – while keeping in mind the greater outrage of the coup itself, which ‘ derailed a democratic transition, and condemned Myanmar’s 54 million people to plunge back into severe poverty.
Although Covid-19 was a powerful diversion, the situation in Myanmar is grim. Every day, new reports of regime atrocities are pouring out of the country. Suu Kyi is a political prisoner, but she is one of more than 10,000 who have been arrested since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group. It counts the death toll claimed on the junta’s enemies at more than 1,300. Before the coup, Myanmar was poor but growing rapidly. The Asian Development Bank now expects the economy to contract by 18.4 percent this year, the worst performance in the region.
The challenge for the international community is how to apply pressure. It is commendable that no country has formally recognized the junta as Myanmar’s government – including Russia and China, the army’s largest arms suppliers – and no one should be tempted to do so now. The UN has held in place Kyaw Moe Tun, who supports the partially banned national unity government, as Myanmar’s permanent representative. As a further step, the UN Security Council could impose a full arms embargo on the regime and enforce it.
Asean, the regional bloc leading shaky diplomacy over the Myanmar crisis, has so far insisted on recognizing the regime, but Cambodian dictator Hun Sen says he will visit Myanmar next month. Although there are several autocrats in the club, they should not accept the junta among them. Instead, ASEAN should continue to engage with all parties in the pursuit of a resolution, while seeking ways to bring humanitarian aid to Myanmar’s people.
Aung San Suu Kyi is now 76. Even if she is liberated, her days in power would be limited, but she is the country’s elected leader and a symbol of Myanmar’s pursuit of democracy. Her fate should not be forgotten, but neither should the broader struggle of Myanmar’s people to build their country, free from cruel military rule.