On December 6, prominent Myanmar democracy activist and defacto country leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to four years in prison (later reduced to two years in a pardon by the military) after being convicted of breaking Covid-19 regulations and of inciting dissent.
This after Ms Suu Kyi was arrested on February 1 as part of the coup staged by the junta following its defeat at the hands of her National League For Democracy Party in the November 2020 Myanmar general election.
While international condemnation of Ms Suu Kyi’s December 6 sentencing this month has been widespread ~ with the United States, United Nations and European Union all calling her conviction politically motivated ~ there is a question as to how long the global community will advocate for her release.
During the 15-year period she endured as a prominent political prisoner in the 1990s and 2000s, Ms Suu Kyi was championed by American presidents, religious leaders and prominent human rights activists the world over. In 1991, while under house arrest, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading an inspiring Mahatma Gandhi-like nonviolent campaign against tyranny in her country. Yet, the deserved overseas adulation and support that Ms.
Suu Kyi received during her previous time under detention may not be forthcoming this time around. This is in part due to what many outside Myanmar view as Ms Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out against the military’s murder, rape and ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya Muslims, particularly after a state-directed campaign of violence in Rakhine state in 2017 that drove more than 730,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
In some cases, Ms Suu Kyi has appeared to minimize or even deny the atrocities that have taken place against the Rohingya community. One prominent incident that alarmed many were her comments during a 2017 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan describing that photographs of the violence were “simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”.
Many were also aghast that Ms Suu Kyi provided cover for the junta’s violent campaign towards the Rohingyas when she appeared before the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague in 2019 and defended the army against accusations of genocide.
While Ms Suu Kyi’s 2019 appearance at The Hague was damaging to her image abroad, her level of support domestically remains strong among the Buddhist-majority society with a 2020 poll indicating that 79 per cent of Myanmar’s citizens have trust in her.
Some assert that her imprisonment this time around, while unjust, does not exonerate her refusal to speak out with greater clarity against the junta’s mistreatment of the Rohingyas. Ms Suu Kyi’s critics argue that the February 1 coup and her subsequent arrest were inevitable given the Faustian bargain of political power-sharing that she struck with the generals after her party’s resounding victory in the 2015 general election ~ Myanmar’s first free election in decades.
While Ms Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto leader following the 2015 election, the military maintained veto power over constitutional changes as well as control of internal and external security matters. Others assert that Ms Suu Kyi’s recent sham trial and incarceration are a sign of the corruption she had to contend with while cogoverning with the generals. Her supporters argue that she did everything possible from within the faulty power sharing structure to advocate for change and make improvements for Myanmar society.
All this has left Ms Suu Kyi with a mixed human rights legacy, with some officials less willing than before to spend the political capital to voice moral support for her while others’ devotion to her remains unchanged. Time will tell whether or not the bulk of the international community will overlook her controversial status and continue to call for her release.
One possible scenario may unfold in which the Myanmar democracy restoration cause may be taken up with greater focus by the US in an attempt to compete with China for influence in the country and to criticize its strong backing of the junta. Given the controversy surrounding Ms Suu Kyi’s neglect of the Rohingya, Washington may drop her as a prominent point of focus and symbol of such a campaign. For its part, the ten-member economic union of Southeast Asian nations (Asean) has been frustrated by Myanmar junta’s obstinacy as well as divided on how to address the situation.
Envoys’ requests to meet Ms Suu Kyi have been rebuffed and some member states have criticized the coup, an abandonment of the bloc’s tradition of not commenting on the internal affairs of fellow member states. Tellingly, Myanmar’s junta chief and self-declared Prime Minister General Min Aung Hlaing was barred from attending both the October 26 Asean summit (which included US President Joe Biden) and the November 22 Asean-China Special Summit.
Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia ~ a client state of China ~ who will take over Asean’s rotating chairmanship in 2022 has stated that he will visit Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar on January 7-8 in an attempt to restore the junta’s “right” to attend ASEAN summits. He will be the first international leader to visit the country since the February 1 coup.
Due to Cambodia’s and Myanmar’s close relationships with China, it remains to be seen to what degree, if any, Ms Suu Kyi and her fight for democracy will be a topic of discussion in Asean’s forthcoming attempts to address the crisis. Given her tarnished human rights record, the same cloudy outlook for Ms Suu Kyi may be in store beginning next year in less China-friendly forums.
(The writer is a member of the faculty at Claremont Graduate University, USA)