Who is Aung San Suu Kyi and why has the ousted leader been sentenced to jail?

Myanmar’s former leader was a peace icon who fell from grace on the world stage

Foreign Staff
Monday 06 December 2021 13:58
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The four-year jail sentence handed to Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed leader of Myanmar and Nobel laureate, is the latest twist in the saga of a former global peace icon whose once stellar reputation became stained by controversy.

The country’s last democratically elected leader, who was ousted in a military coup in February, was sentenced on Monday on charges of incitement and breaching coronavirus restrictions.

Suu Kyi faces a dozen cases, including multiple corruption charges plus violations of a state secrets act, which carry combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup against Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government sparked widespread protests and raised international concern about the halt to tentative political reforms following decades of military rule.

While governments and campaigners worldwide have been quick to criticise the military junta and condemn the sentencing as a blow to freedom and democracy, it was not so long ago that Suu Kyi was herself was the target of global ire.

Beloved in much of Myanmar as “the Lady”, Suu Kyi went from 15 years of house arrest to become leader in 2015 when her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory in the country’s first openly contested election for half a century.

Yet just two years later, the beacon of democracy shocked the world by downplaying a military-led crackdown against the Rohingya minority that was marked by mass killings and gang rapes, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country.

Suu Kyi is still widely admired in Myanmar - the NLD party won the November 2020 general election by a landslide before the military seized power citing election irregularities - yet she struggled to unite various ethnic groups or end its long-running insurgencies and conflicts.

But where did her journey begin?

Born in what was then known as Rangoon, Burma, towards the end of the Second World War, Suu Kyi’s childhood was marked by tragedy - two of her siblings died young while her father, independence hero Aung San, was assassinated when she was just two-years-old.

Suu Kyi spent her formative years abroad, first in India with her mother who was Myanmar’s ambassador in Delhi, then in the UK where she studied at Oxford University and met her late husband Michael Aris.

She returned to Myanmar in 1988 to care for her dying mother, and was swept up in a student-led revolution against the military junta that had seized power after her father’s death.

Suu Kyi answers questions after a news conference at her residence in Rangoon in 1996

Suu Kyi founded the NLD and campaigned for greater transparency and democracy, quoting her father’s dream to “build up a free Burma”.

But the revolution was crushed by the military and Suu Kyi was imprisoned in her lakeside family home, where she spent 15 years over a 21-year period under house arrest.

She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for campaigning for democracy, yet the army kept up a smear campaign against her and just speaking her name in public could result in a jail sentence.

In 2010, the military began a series of democratic reforms that saw Suu Kyi released from house arrest and paved the way for the NLD to re-register to contest elections once more.

Many countries started easing economic sanctions on Myanmar while global leaders proffered their support for Suu Kyi, most notably Barack Obama who became the first US president to visit the nation in 2012 and called her an “inspiration to people all around the world”.

The NLD won power in 2015 and Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto leader - having been barred from becoming president under the constitution because she has children who are foreign nationals.

Her official title was state counsellor, and she pledged to lessen the role of the military in politics - although the army retained an unelected quota of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats.

After coming to power, Suu Kyi also told Western allies that she would address plight of the Rohingya Muslim community who had borne the brunt of violent clashes with the country’s Buddhist majority.

Yet she was unmoved by violence in 2017 when security forces responded to attacks from Rohingya militants by burning hundreds of villages to the ground. Suu Kyi said the military was exercising the rule of law, and amid global criticism she simply said: “Show me a country without human rights issues."

She was widely denounced by world leaders, global institutions, and former advocates, including the Dalai Lama, and had several of her accolades rescinded in a stunning fall from grace.

What’s more, in 2019, Suu Kyi flew to The Hague to face genocide charges at the International Court of Justice, where she acknowledged the possibility that war crimes had been committed but framed the crackdown as a legitimate military operation against terrorists.

Aung San Suu Kyi appears before the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2019

Despite this, she remained hugely popular at home, and in last year’s parliamentary elections, the NLD won 83 per cent of available seats.

However, the military alleged electoral fraud and seized power in a bloodless coup on 1 February - ending a decade of civilian rule in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi has been detained since the coup along with most senior leaders of her party, while others are abroad or in hiding. Her sentencing could well spark further protests and unrest.

Myanmar is wrestling with domestic tension and military violence as citizens have protested against army rule, while UN experts have warned that the country is sliding towards civil war.

The protests have resulted in the deaths of at least 1,300 civilians, according to a tally by non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Suu Kyi’s supporters say the cases against her are baseless - designed to end her political career and tie her up in legal proceedings while the military consolidates power.

While the trial was closed to the media and the proceedings were not made public, the junta has said Suu Kyi is being given due process by an independent court led by a judge appointed by her own administration.

The UN and EU have condemned her sentencing as a “sham trial” and “politically motivated”, while Japan and China among others have urged the country to respect democracy.

Ultimately, Myanmar watchers say the outstanding cases against Suu Kyi - which are more severe than Monday’s charges - mean the former leader is likely to spend the rest of her life in prison.

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