After five years as the de facto leader in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is in a familiar place: under house arrest while facing charges surpassed by a military dictatorship, with his party, the National League for Democracy ( NLD), the on the verge of dissolution.
On Monday, four months since the military took power in a coup, the extremely popular politician will face trial in a Naypyidaw court on five counts, including illegal possession of walkie-talkies and the violation of coronavirus restrictions while campaigning for elections. Military officials have also accused her of corruption and violation of the Official Secrets Act of the colonial era.
There is a sense of purpose about this confrontation between Aung San Suu Kyi and the army chief and coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing.
Aung 75 years old, Aung San Suu Kyi faces prison sentences that could put her in jail for the rest of her life, permanently taking her away from a political scenario she has defined for decades. Meanwhile, many of his supporters have gone beyond their historic calls for nonviolent resistance and gradual reform, rather than approving the armed revolt and the total overthrow of the military regime.
“This time, there are no indications that the regime plans to release Aung San Suu Kyi, allow her to communicate with her followers or use her as a bargaining chip in her relations with the outside world. Rather, Min Aung Hlaing wants to have a free hand to shape the political landscape free of her and the NLD’s influence, ”said Richard Horsey, a political analyst with decades of experience in Myanmar.
Despite being largely closed to the outside world for the past four months, it still plays a central role in the ongoing political crisis. Before the generals violently repressed the protests, they killed more than 850 civilians, posters and banners with the face of Aung San Suu Kyi were a key pillar in most of the demonstrations.
“It simply came to our notice then. He is without a doubt the most popular political figure in the country, no one else is coming, ”said Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of Burmese hidden history.
Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a political force during the 1988 uprisings against a previous military regime, perfectly prepared to take the helm of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement during a period of instability. The daughter of independence icon Aung San, she had just returned from the United Kingdom, where she studied at Oxford and married a British man.
He became synonymous with Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and earned the respect of millions by sacrificing his freedom and security for the cause, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. He spent years in and out of arrest. and survived an assassination attempt in 2003 that left dozens, possibly hundreds, dead. Aung San Suu Kyi’s education and international recognition was also a source of admiration for many of her followers.
But while this was a stronghold in the eyes of many, it was an insult to the ultranationalist military, also known as the Tatmadaw, who often made sexist insults against the “foreign woman.”
In 2008, before allowing elections, the military regime drafted a new constitution that allowed it to maintain control of several key institutions and guaranteed it 25 percent of parliament seats. A clause was also added prohibiting anyone with a foreign husband or children from serving as president, which many considered to be directly aimed at Aung San Suu Kyi.
With the help of a constitutional lawyer named Ko Ni, she found a way to circumvent this ban, taking on the role of state councilor after the NLD’s first electoral victory in 2015. Two years later, Ko Ni was shot.
But while he was a world superstar as an activist, once in power many of his biggest supporters were disappointed.
In 2017, hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim Rohingya fled to Bangladesh as the military unleashed a brutal repression in the western state of Rakhine.
The Nobel laureate did not condemn the actions of the military and after presenting a case of genocide 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 internal popularity only grew as she went from the dissident leader to the national leader. Internationally, he fell dramatically out of grace as a result of violence against the Rohingya, in which he was seen as an accomplice by denying the scope 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, but was only disappointed by her time in power.
“It was the reason I became a human rights advocate,” she said. But as the violence against the Rohingya grew, Thinzar Shunlei Yi became one of the only people to protest against it, putting her at odds with her hero and her crowds of supporters.
“I was blunt against her and got a lot of gunshots,” she said.
It calls for radical change
It was not just during the Rohingya crisis that Aung San Suu Kyi did not live up to expectations. “He was also considered to be abandoning his human rights principles when governing in other ways, including the treatment of free media, civil society and the rights of ethnic minorities,” Horsey explained.
When two Reuters journalists were arrested for exposing the military killings of Rohingya civilians, Aung San Suu Kyi said the case “has nothing to do with freedom of speech.” During his time in power, journalists and Facebook users faced criminal charges for criticizing NLD politicians.
With the leadership of the dispersed NLDs or in prison after the coup, more progressive activists like Thinzar Shunlei Yi found themselves at the forefront of the initial resistance movement. They called for an increasingly radical change, such as the abolition of the 2008 constitution, drafted by the army, the complete elimination of the army from politics, the reform of the discriminatory Citizenship Act of 1982 that helped to make the Rohingya stateless and the armed revolution more than nonviolent resistance.
These positions were finally approved by the Government of National Unity, a parallel government created by elected deputies challenging the military regime. Thinzar Shunlei Yi acknowledges that Aung San Suu Kyi remains “so influential” in the pro-democracy movement, but is also concerned that this influence may be twofold.
“Even in this revolution where a lot of people are starving and running for their lives, people still think about their situation and cry for it,” he said. This can help motivate people even when they are harassed and lose hope.
But Aung San Suu Kyi might disagree with the armed revolt, abolish the constitution, or accept the Rohingya as citizens. “We wonder what if he says something against the current revolution, things would go the other way around,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi said.
While some have argued that Aung San Suu Kyi supported the military in the Rohingya crisis for fear of a coup or the need to appeal to a nationalist voter base, others say the his position simply reflected his genuine beliefs on the subject.
“It’s not at all clear that his position on the Rohingya was driven by political considerations,” Horsey said. “But it certainly meant that, at the time of the coup, it had a very diminished international reputation at a time when it needed more international support.”
“Full of optimism”
In all, Aung San Suu Kyi faces seven criminal charges; five in the capital Naypyidaw, one in the Supreme Court and one recently added corruption charge.
His lawyers are among the only people who have had access to the detained leader since his arrest in February. The leader of his legal team, Khin Maung Zaw, told Al Jazeera that they met with Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint on Monday, June 7th. Khin Maung Zaw said the five cases in Naypyidaw were classified as “simple”, with it being held every Monday and Tuesday until the end of the month.
For the Supreme Court case, he said the court branded Aung San Suu Kyi as a defender, which Khin Maung Zaw said was done “without her knowledge and consent.”
“She also said she told people who kept her in custody that she would not defend her cases without a lawyer,” she said.
She said that while Aung San Suu Kyi has not been satisfied with the agreement that the army regularly delivered her medicines, she and the other two politicians “appeared to be in good health”.
When asked about his spirits, Khin Maung Zaw said, “Unlike me, she is full of optimism.”
On Wednesday, the military revealed it new charges of corruption against Aung San Suu Kyi for allegedly bribing and leasing land at reduced prices, which carries an additional 15-year prison sentence.
Khin Maung Zaw says the latest accusation is “absurd” and “unfounded.” “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 has encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi to “join the CDM” by “boycotting the judicial system.” The CDM represents the Civil Disobedience Movement, a massive strike of officials who refuse to work under the military regime.
“I do not trust the internal judicial system and I do not believe [military] she will make a fair trial for herself and other leaders, ”he said.
While the outcome of the trial seems inevitable, Thant Myint-U says what happened in Myanmar was not.
“There was no way the army would accept constitutional reform,” Thant Myint-U said. “But a visionary economic agenda that would bring billions of new investments and create millions of new jobs, along with measures to combat discrimination, build a more inclusive national identity and work closely with civil society, could have overcome the leadership of the army and perhaps even won over many of the corps of officers ”.