A dangerous political bargain ends with Aung San Suu Kyi in a familiar place: detention
With her detention Monday amid a military coup in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s dizzying journey on the world stage — from democracy icon to leader of an elected government and then, astonishingly, a stalwart defender of the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims — returned to a familiar place.
The 75-year-old is a political prisoner again, held along with dozens of allies and political leaders as the army retook power barely five years after elections that ended half a century of military rule.
The former junta held Suu Kyi under house arrest for nearly 15 years at her family’s lakeside villa in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, starting in 1989. She gained international prominence as the serene, smiling face of the struggle for democracy, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and basking in comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi for her promotion of nonviolence.
After the junta agreed to some reforms, she became Myanmar’s nominal leader in 2015 and heads a political party that has won two consecutive landslide victories in parliamentary elections, most recently in November. But she shared power in a delicate and not always discernible dance with her former jailers in the army, which kept control over security affairs and veto power over constitutional changes.
The arrangement boosted Suu Kyi’s popularity at home as one of Asia’s poorest economies began to open up. But her refusal to criticize the army made her a global disgrace when she defended the 2017 military-led offensive that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their homes.
To her detractors, the coup is the inevitable result of the Faustian bargain she struck with the army for political gain, a deal whose limits are now crushingly clear: The generals were never more than one step away from seizing power again.
“She’s in a bad situation right now, so I don’t want to criticize her too much,” said Thet Swe Win, an interfaith activist in Yangon. “But they could have predicted this would happen.”
The whereabouts of Suu Kyi and the other detainees weren’t immediately known. Internet and mobile telephone networks were disrupted in parts of Myanmar, also known as Burma, and the state TV channel went off the air. The army announced that it had imposed a one-year state of emergency, appointed an ex-general as interim president and would hand over power after new elections, to be held at an unspecified date.
President Biden condemned the moves as “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy” and said the U.S. would consider reimposing economic sanctions if the army doesn’t relinquish power.
“For almost a decade, the people of Burma have been steadily working to establish elections, civilian governance, and the peaceful transfer of power,” the White House said in a statement. “That progress should be respected.”
Rumors of a coup in Myanmar had swirled for weeks as army leaders made unsubstantiated claims of fraud in November’s elections, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, the NLD, won more than 80% of elected seats, while the main military-backed party saw its paltry numbers dwindle even further.
The army commander in chief, senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said last week that it might be “necessary” to revoke the constitution the army imposed in 2008, which provides for a civilian government but allows the military to operate without oversight. Most analysts played down the threat, reasoning that he and his top lieutenants — already facing U.S. travel bans and asset freezes, as well as international criminal cases — wouldn’t risk further global scorn.
She was once synonymous with the struggle against oppression.
The quick, bloodless takeover Monday, hours before the opening parliamentary session, took even close observers by surprise. Some speculated that the NLD’s plans to form a national unity government, including members of smaller ethnic parties, troubled the army, known locally as the Tatmadaw, which has been fighting with ethnic militias for decades.
“The coup will boost Aung San Suu Kyi’s international image,” said Melissa Crouch, an expert on Myanmar at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “This is the proof she needs that the military does not play by the rules it created.”
Within hours of the detentions, many residents of Yangon had removed the red flags of the NLD from their homes and businesses. The party issued a statement on a Facebook page urging people to oppose the coup and any return to “military dictatorship.”
But by Monday evening there was no sign of a popular uprising to defend either the election outcome or a party that just three months ago won a resounding majority.
To many experts, that signaled one of Suu Kyi’s main failings as a politician: As the daughter of Myanmar’s slain independence leader, Aung San, she has hoarded power inside the party and failed to groom the next generation of leaders.
The average age of the party’s leadership exceeds 70. Younger members claim they have been sidelined and say government functions effectively ceased whenever Suu Kyi, who held the position of state counselor, was away.
“It’s a reflection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s way of operating that it was a one-person show, and while you hope there’s a contingency plan, we have yet to see one,” said Ronan Lee, a visiting scholar at Queen Mary University of London and author of the new book “Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide.” “The threat of a coup always loomed over Myanmar, and if there’s a failure of the forces of democracy to prepare for it, that’s down to Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Critics say Suu Kyi’s party failed to use its substantial parliamentary majority to enact significant democratic reforms. It left laws restricting free speech and assembly on the books, promoted Buddhist nationalism at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities and prosecuted dozens of activists, journalists and critics.
In 2017, U Ko Ni, an advisor to Suu Kyi who advocated a new constitution that would reduce the Tatmadaw’s powers, was gunned down at the Yangon airport in an attack widely believed to be on the army’s orders. Suu Kyi waited several weeks before speaking about the killing — a sign, some said, that she feared for her safety.
U Ko Ni had just stepped off a plane and was standing curbside at the airport in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.
Later that year, the military launched a scorched-earth campaign in Rakhine state, killing or maiming untold numbers of Rohingya Muslims and driving more than 700,000 into refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw has denied committing atrocities, and Suu Kyi suggested that Rohingya refugees were exaggerating or inventing their claims.
“She was like a shield for the military,” Thet Swe Win said. “She covered for them and took criticism from the whole world for it.”
In December 2019, Suu Kyi appeared in The Hague to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice. Weeks later, a 17-judge panel ruled unanimously that the government must take immediate steps to prevent violence against the Rohingya.
“She doesn’t practice democracy; she doesn’t value democracy,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Myanmar human rights activist. “She was enjoying the power she obtained under this constitution, and she failed the people of this country and the victims of genocide.”
But as condemnations of the coup flowed in from Western governments and human rights groups, Suu Kyi was being cast again in a familiar role: a silenced symbol of democracy.
“Overnight, she’s the iconic victim again,” Lee said. “It would be sad if Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation was rehabilitated at the expense of democracy in Myanmar.”
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