Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi likely to spend life in prison

Ms Suu Kyi has been a prisoner since the generals toppled her government in February 2021. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON – A court in army-ruled Myanmar on Friday found deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of corruption and sentenced her to seven more years in prison, wrapping up the last remaining cases against her almost two years after she was first detained by the military in a coup.

Ms Suu Kyi, 77, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has already begun serving a 26-year prison sentence in connection with more than a dozen charges she has faced since the coup.

The additional sentence she received on Friday, in a courtroom that sits inside a prison in the capital Naypyitaw, ends her legal trials and makes it likely that she will remain behind bars for the rest of her life – or as long as the junta stays in power.

Her lawyers plan to appeal, according to a source familiar with the proceedings.

A military spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ms Suu Kyi has been a prisoner since the generals toppled her government in February 2021, ending Myanmar’s brief experiment with democracy.

She has already been found guilty on a raft of charges ranging from accepting bribes from Myanmar businessman Maung Weik to illegally importing walkie-talkies and breaching the official secrets Act, and has been ordered jailed for 26 years.

Journalists have been barred from the proceedings, which rights groups have slammed as a sham designed to remove Ms Suu Kyi from Myanmar’s political scene.

The remaining five corruption charges relate to the rental of a helicopter for a government minister, a case in which Ms Suu Kyi allegedly did not follow regulations and caused “a loss to the state”.

Last week, in its first resolution on the situation in Myanmar since the coup, the United Nations Security Council called on the junta to release Ms Suu Kyi.

It was a moment of relative unity by the council after permanent members and close junta allies China and Russia abstained, opting not to wield vetoes following amendments to the wording.

Ms Suu Kyi is currently imprisoned in a compound in Naypyitaw, close to the courthouse where her trial is being held, and has been deprived of her household staff and pet dog Taichido.

Since the coup, she has largely disappeared from public view, seen only in grainy state media photos from the bare courtroom.

Myanmar has been plunged into turmoil, with some established ethnic rebel groups renewing fighting with the military in border areas, and the economy in tatters.

“People’s Defence Forces” eschewing Ms Suu Kyi’s strict policy of non-violence have also sprung up to battle the junta and have surprised the military with their effectiveness, observers say.

Analysts say the junta may allow Ms Suu Kyi to serve some of her sentence under house arrest while it prepares for elections it has said will take place in 2023.

The military alleged there was widespread voter fraud during the 2020 polls, won resoundingly by Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, although international observers said the elections were largely free and fair.

More than 2,600 people have been killed in a crackdown by the military on dissent, according to a local monitoring group.

Rights groups have accused the military of extrajudicial killings and launching air strikes on civilians that amount to war crimes.

The junta, meanwhile, says that “terrorists” have killed over 4,000 civilians.

Ms Suu Kyi is revered by many in Myanmar, but the military has long sought to minimise her influence, said human rights lawyer Kyee Myint in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. 

“As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in politics, the military will never win,” Mr Kyee Myint said. “That’s why long-term prison terms are imposed – to remove Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s influence in politics.”

Ms Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, the country’s independence hero, who was assassinated when she was two years old.

As an adult, she was one of many people who spent years in jail for their political opposition to the military junta that seized power in 1962 and ruled the country for decades. 

In 1991, she won a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent resistance to the generals who locked her up, turning her into an icon for global democracy.

She eventually began a power-sharing arrangement with the military when her party won its first landslide election victory in 2015. She was given the title foreign minister and state counsellor. 

By the time of her arrest in 2021, Ms Suu Kyi had already lost some of her lustre, in large part because she downplayed the army’s murderous campaign against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, who have been forced to flee Myanmar by the hundreds of thousands.

But she still has legions of devoted followers. 

“Burmese protesters have marched flying portraits of her father, Aung San, decades after he was murdered, so we can assume that her own portrait will continue to be used as a call to collective action and protest against those holding illegitimate power, regardless of her own action,” said Dr Renaud Egreteau, an expert on civil-military relations in Myanmar and a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. 

“She is still the matriarchal figure that invokes resistance against the army,” he added. “I doubt a farcical trial can change that.”

Since being detained in 2021, Ms Suu Kyi has been allowed to speak only with her lawyers. They have been banned from speaking to the news media during the trials.

Earlier in 2022, the country’s military-backed Supreme Court announced that it would auction off Ms Suu Kyi’s residence, where she spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during the previous military regime. 

Human Rights Watch urged a stronger international response and more effective sanctions to hurt the junta.

“The Myanmar junta’s farcical, totally unjust parade of charges and convictions against Aung San Suu Kyi amount to politically motivated punishment designed to hold her behind bars for the rest of her life,” its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.

“The junta is obviously hoping the international community will miss this news, and there will be little global publicity about the final result of the military’s blatantly unjust campaign against Suu Kyi.” REUTERS, NYTIMES

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