Why Aung San Suu Kyi Deserves Another Chance To Say Sorry
The international community should step up efforts to free Myanmar’s iconic leader from post-coup military detention, despite her dramatic fall from grace over the Rohingya issue
The world watched in agony as Myanmar’s de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi defended the indefensible at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in December 2019. Once a doyen of peace, the Nobel Prize laureate nonchalantly justified the military-perpetrated genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state as a legitimate counter-terrorism response. Her decision to play straight into the hands of the all-powerful military bosses of the country was also marked by her instant fall from grace in international circles. Whether the junta appeasement was for reasons political or patriotic, her critics insist she could have at least displayed an ounce of compassion for the victims of the 2016-17 persecutions, after having sat through numerous accounts of horrific rapes, blood-curdling screams of children being thrown into burning houses, and extrajudicial killings, all of which were laid out before the court.
A year and a half later, ‘The Lady’ is neither in office nor among the masses. The firebrand leader was outsmarted by the same junta that tied her hands at the ICJ in one of the swiftest coups ever, in February this year. On Monday, Suu Kyi appeared in a court in the capital Naypyidaw for her first post-coup trial on charges of violating Covid-19 restrictions during last year’s election, and another frivolous allegation of importing and possessing walkie-talkie radios in violation of a communications law. The more serious criminal charges, including corruption and violation of the colonial-era Secrets Act, have not been assigned a trial date so far. If found guilty – which the military surely will – in the seven charges foisted against her, Suu Kyi stands a risk of lifelong incarceration.
Why a coup?
Suu Kyi has long been the face of democracy in Myanmar, with her National League for Democracy (NLD) maintaining its winning streak in consecutive elections. Her latest landslide victory in November last year, winning 396 out of the 476 seats open to contest, did not go down well with the military top brass. The Tatmadaw, which means the military in Burmese, was also worried about the poor show by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which it backed. The outfit garnered a measly 33 seats in the bicameral legislature, a direct reflection of the Tatmadaw’s diminishing clout among the masses.
The new Constitution, which the military itself had drafted and approved in 2008 with no Opposition participation, guarantees 25 per cent seats in both houses of the national Parliament to the Tatmadaw. Electoral contests take place only in the rest of the seats. While its upper House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) has a total of 224 seats, polls were held in only 161. Of them, the NLD won 138 and the main Opposition USDP just seven.
Similarly, in the lower House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw), 315 out of the total 440 seats went to the polls. The NLD won 258 seats here, whereas the USDP clinched 26. In effect, the NLD improved its 2015 position of 390 in the 664-seat Union Parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw), the country’s highest legislative body. For the USDP, it was a climb-down from its previous win in 41 seats. In a bid to save its reputation, the USDP immediately demanded a re-run claiming the vote was fraudulent, while the military legitimized the proofless claim by cancelling the election to vest all control with General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief. Interestingly, the fresh coup gave the battle-hardened general a reason to extend his tenure by at least one year, if not longer. He was originally due to step down after reaching the retirement age of 65 in July.
Months before the electoral battle, Parliament had seen fierce debates over Suu Kyi’s push for a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of seats reserved for the military. The proposal envisaged a steady reduction of such seats, to 15 per cent after the 2020 polls, 10 per cent after 2025, and to five per cent after 2030. Though the proposal gained majority support, it missed the 75 per cent threshold, all thanks to the military’s power to veto any legislation. With Suu Kyi’s path to power once again clear, the Tatmadaw was apparently jittery about her proposal for parliamentary reforms. Though the exact reason is not yet known, all these factors could have prompted the coup of February 1, the date on which Myanmar’s new Parliament was scheduled to convene.
Like in Pakistan, military generals hold sway in Myanmar’s political circles. While the Pakistani generals control everything from behind, Myanmar’s military is ingrained in the system itself. Under the new Constitution, the Tatmadaw controls mining, oil and gas industries and has huge funds at its disposal to boost the budget. Such financial freedom has allowed it to conveniently brush aside calls for free and fair elections in the past. The junta boasts to be the only force that could unify diverse ethnic armies or groups and states in the Buddhist nation.
The Tatmadaw enjoyed strong public support since its inception as it had played a key role in liberating the country from British rule in 1948. But with unbridled power came the quest to gag democracy and U Nu’s government, which was in office from 1948 to 1962, was discredited in a coup.
The junta ruled the country with an iron fist until 1988, the year that saw nationwide protests against its widespread economic mismanagement and aversion to reforms. The protests, commonly referred to as the 8888 Uprising by taking a cue from its start date August 8, 1988, culminated in a violent military crackdown that killed as many as 5,000 people. The uprising ended the next month, following a bloody military coup.
Suu Kyi launched her political outfit NLD the same month and started to put pressure on the junta to hold polls. Succumbing to both domestic and international calls, the military held an election in 1990. The NLD won it by a landslide, but the junta refused to recognise the result and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for nearly 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010.
In November 2010, general elections were held in accordance with the new Constitution and junta rule was replaced by a new military-backed civilian government led by the USDP. But the first-ever openly contested election after 1990 was held after a 25-year gap in 2015.
An international gamble
Myanmar is fast descending into a ‘reign of terror’ as the junta remains instrumental in suppressing all forms of protest. On March 27, a total of 114 pro-democracy protesters were shot dead across the country, making it the deadliest day since the coup. According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 865 people were confirmed killed by the military, as of June 16. A total of 6078 protesters have been arrested, while 4911 are currently under detention. As many as 31 death sentences have also been issued.
Yet, people continue to defy military rule by holding flash protests, marches, work strikes and online dissent. Some activists have launched a civil disobedience movement – banging pans (the traditional Burmese way to ward off evil), honking horns and giving a three-finger salute to the forces to show their resistance.
While the international community condemned the coup, their efforts to restore democracy were seriously crippled by a lack of consensus. The US and UK imposed sanctions on military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, whereas the European Union sanctioned individuals linked to the military. But such measures were rejected by Myanmar’s biggest trade partners in Asia, who believed dialogue was the way forward. Incidentally, it was China that vetoed a United Nations Security Council statement condemning the coup, by taking advantage of its position as one of the five permanent members of the council. India, which had preferred a wait-and-watch approach right from the beginning, also joined Russia and Vietnam to water down the resolution.
India’s attendance at the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade on March 27, the bloodiest day so far under the present coup, had drawn all-round flak with a Twitter account of the Civil Disobedience Movement asking why “one of the greatest democracies in the world” sent their military attaché to “shake hands with the generals whose hands are soaked with our blood”.
Suu Kyi, meanwhile, remains in incommunicado detention with her chances of freedom highly dependent on international interventions. But the global community has been cross with the once-persecuted leader, ever since her infamous justification of the Rohingya genocide. At the same time, there is no denying that Suu Kyi by far is the most popular leader in the Buddhist nation. The majority of its 54-million people had voted to keep her in office. For that same reason, the international community cannot shrug her off.
Throughout her tenure, Suu Kyi had to fight the military-scripted Constitution of 2008 that gave the junta considerable powers. She was barred from becoming the president under the Constitution and was designated as State Counsellor because her late spouse, Michael Aris, was a foreigner and her two sons held British passports.
Another chapter of the rule book calls the National Defence and Security Council, mostly made up of military brass, the highest authority of Myanmar with the power to remove the government if need be. The Constitution also states the president has no power to appoint the ministers of defence, home affairs or border affairs. These nominations can only be made by the chief of the army.
All these facts give an impression that Suu Kyi, who turns 76 on Saturday, was not in a position to wield real power in the last five years. One could possibly give her the benefit of doubt for not rallying behind Rohingyas, and provide her with another chance at freedom to say sorry for what had happened in Rakhine. Whether Suu Kyi would even care to use such an opportunity – she has always been seen as stubborn – is the gamble that world leaders should take.