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Myanmar’s generals want Aung San Suu Kyi locked up forever

Yet The Opposition To Their Regime Has Grown Far Beyond Its Figurehead


The guilty verdicts that a court in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, handed down to Aung San Suu Kyi on December 6th were both cruel and farcical. One charge had to do with Ms Suu Kyi breaching coronavirus restrictions at a campaign rally last year. Sentence: two years in prison. The second charge—for which, a further two years—was that Ms Suu Kyi disturbed public order. As evidence, prosecutors cited statements on her party’s Facebook page. Win Myint, a former president, was also sentenced to four years in prison.

Never mind that the posts were made after the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known, had launched its coup in February against Ms Suu Kyi, then the country’s de facto leader, and her democratically elected government, during which she and other civilian leaders were bundled off incommunicado. To compound the farce, following the verdicts the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, issued a partial pardon and magnanimously cut Ms Suu Kyi’s outrageous four-year sentence in half.

The gesture will have fooled no one. A raft of further charges still hangs over Ms Suu Kyi. They range from smuggling unlicensed walkie-talkies into the country for her bodyguards to benefiting from a government helicopter. The charges are to ensure, at a minimum, that she cannot take part in the election which the ruling junta promises for 2023. It is probably also to ensure that the 76-year-old, who spent 15 lonely years under house arrest for advocating democracy, never walks free again. “They want her to die in prison,” as Dr Sasa, a spokesman for the shadow government, told the bbc.

If he is right, the verdicts may well bring to a close the extraordinary public life of Ms Suu Kyi. Daughter of Burma’s founding father, General Aung San, before 1988 she never expected to become an icon of democracy and eventual leader. That year a popular uprising against the military regime that had ruled since 1962 thrust her into prominence. Put under house arrest in 1989 before her National League for Democracy (nld) swept elections that the Tatmadaw could not accept, her moral authority only grew. In 2010 the junta lifted her house arrest, and then ceded political power. The nld won elections in 2015 and again last year by landslides. It proved more than General Min Aung Hlaing could bear.

Yet by the time of this year’s coup, Ms Suu Kyi’s own flaws had come more plainly into view. She had done little to refresh the nld’s leadership with younger, more technocratic Burmese. Even among the old guard she reigned as a micromanaging monarch. So the government struggled to promote social and economic change.

Popular in the heartlands of the ethnic-Bamar majority, she failed to win the trust of Myanmar’s other ethnicities, some of whom have been in conflict with the centre for decades; they viewed her as just another Bamar chauvinist. Worst of all, she cosseted the army which her father had once led. Following its appalling pogroms against Muslim Rohingyas, her defence of the Tatmadaw at The Hague in 2019 led to calls for her Nobel peace prize to be rescinded. Ms Suu Kyi’s high-handedness represented a national tragedy. Her reimprisonment fuses that tragedy with a personal one—her coddling of the generals has come to naught.

Yet so too, already, has General Min Aung Hlaing’s calculation that in cancelling the nation’s democratic icon he turns back time. With extraordinary speed, the opposition has moved out from under Ms Suu Kyi’s shadow, even as she remains widely revered. Where the nld was Bamar-centric, the shadow National Unity Government (nug), operating underground or from abroad, is far more representative of Myanmar’s ethnic diversity. The nug acknowledges the rights of Rohingyas, whom Ms Suu Kyi disparaged as alien “Bengalis” without a claim to citizenship. Its cabinet is filled with women, where Ms Suu Kyi’s tolerated only one—herself.

Opposition to the coup has also moved away from Ms Suu Kyi’s doctrine of non-violence. To be sure, passive resistance remains a feature. But the democratic opposition is also forging ties with many of the country’s ethnic armies to create a coalescing armed resistance to the junta. The Tatmadaw certainly retains the advantage. But its brutalities, which include the recent burning of eight mountain villages in Chin state, sap what remains of its moral authority. As the army struggles for control, General Min Aung Hlaing may be doing more to forge a powerful opposition than Ms Suu Kyi ever managed.