The story so far: On Friday, September 2, a court set up by Myanmar’s military leadership sentenced deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 77, to three years in prison with hard labour, declaring her guilty of having committed electoral fraud.
Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and the face of Myanmar's opposition to years of military rule, has been in detention since February 2021, when the junta took over the administration in a coup. She has already been handed more than 17 years in prison by the court on charges that international rights organisations have called politically motivated. If found guilty of all the charges, she could be sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. The ousted leader has denied all the charges against her.
The cases against Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar’s military regime, or Tatmadaw, when it took over on February 1 last year, arrested the entire civilian leadership including Ms. Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country’s short-lived democratic administration. Since then, charges levied by the new administration against her kept piling up.
Import and possession of walkie-talkies: First, Ms. Suu Kyi was charged right after the military’s takeover with having improperly imported walkie-talkies into the country, which served as the initial justification for her continued detention. A second charge of illegally possessing the devices was filed the following month. The radios were seized from the entrance gate of her residence and the barracks of her bodyguards on the day she was arrested in February last year. Despite her lawyers arguing that the radios were not in her personal possession and were legitimately used to help provide for her security, the court declined to dismiss the charges.
The junta-run court in the capital, Naypyitaw, on January 10 this year, sentenced her to two years in prison for violating the Export-Import Law for importing the unlicensed walkie-talkies and one year under the Telecommunications Law for possessing them. The court ruled that the sentences would be served concurrently.
Charges of flouting Coronavirus restrictions: Ms. Suu Kyi was later charged with two counts of violating Coronavirus restrictions while campaigning for the 2020 election, in which her party National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide. On December 6, 2021, the court sentenced her to two years in prison for violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly breaching COVID restrictions in a campaign appearance ahead of elections in November 2020. She was given another two-year sentence on January 10 for one more count of violating pandemic curbs while campaigning.
Incitement: The court charged her with incitement for two statements published on her party’s social media after she was detained. The statements allegedly condemned the military coup and asked international organisations not to cooperate with the junta regime. Ms. Su Kyi pleaded not guilty in this case as well. Her lawyers argued that Suu Kyi and co-defendant, former President Win Myint, could not be held responsible for the statements and vigorously sought to have the incitement charge dismissed but the court declined the request.
Corruption charges: She was charged with a total of 11 counts of corruption under Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Act, with each count punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine. She was convicted in late April and sentenced to five years in jail for the first corruption charge where she was accused of accepting bribes totalling $600,000 and 11.4 kg of gold from Phyo Min Thein, a former Yangon chief minister once seen as her future successor.
On August 15, the court convicted her in multiple corruption cases and sentenced her to an additional six years in prison. In the four corruption charges ruled on so far, Ms. Suu Kyi was alleged to have abused her position to rent public land at below-market prices and to have built a residence with donations meant for the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation that she chaired. She received a three-year sentence for allegedly taking advantage of her position to rent property in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, for the same foundation. The two other cases involved parcels of land in the capital, Naypyitaw for which she allegedly abused her authority to rent at lower prices for the foundation.
She received sentences of three years for each of the four counts, but the sentences for three of them were directed to be served concurrently, giving her a total of six years in prison.
The former leader was also charged, along with ousted President Win Myint, with granting permits to rent and buy a helicopter. The court has not given a verdict in this case yet.
Charges under the Official Secrets Act: The NLD leader was also charged with breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act of Myanmar, along with her Australian economic adviser, Sean Turnell. The specific allegation against her, in this case, is not publicly known and the verdict is yet to be delivered.
Charges of violating electoral laws: This relates to the latest conviction on September 2, when Ms. Suu Kyi was found guilty of electoral fraud and sentenced by a judge to three years in jail with hard labour. The same sentence was given to the co-defendant in the case—Win Myint, the deposed president. Ms. Suu Kyi’s party won the November 2020 national election with an overwhelming majority, but the junta justified its coup-d’état by accusing her party of rigging the elections.
In mid-November last year, the military-appointed election commission announced it intended to prosecute Suu Kyi and 15 other senior political figures for alleged fraud in the last election, which could result in her party being dissolved.
Discreet nature of the proceedings
Few details are publicly known about the cases and proceedings against Ms. Suu Kyi as the trials are conducted behind closed doors in a court set up by the junta in Napiytaw. The proceedings are closed to the media and spectators, and her lawyers, the sole source of information on the proceedings, were served with gag orders in October last year forbidding them from releasing information. While sources give out some updates, the junta has also made only limited statements about the leader's trials.
She was initially held at her residence in the capital but was later moved to at least one other location, and washeld at an undisclosed location in Naypyitaw for about a year — generally assumed to be on a military base. In June this year, Ms. Suu Kyi was transferred from the secret detention location to solitary confinement in a prison in the capital. A new facility was constructed in the prison compound to try the remaining charges against her.
Outgoing Human Rights Commissioner at the United Nations Michelle Bachelet has called out the military leadership for conducting a “sham trial” against the former leader and laying “politically motivated” charges on her. After the U.N.’s insistence that she at least be moved to house arrest from prison, the junta leaders have said that they would consider the request onlyafter verdicts were given out in all her cases.
Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts say the charges against her are contrived to legitimize the military’s seizure of power and prevent her from returning to politics in the elections promised by the military in 2023.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group, recorded that over 15,000 people had been arrested and more than 12,000 remained in detention in Myanmar since the coup in February last year. The organisation also said that 2,191 pro-democracy activists and other civilians had been killed in crackdowns by the military, though the actual total is probably higher.
Return to exile
Ms. Suu Kyi, a veteran opponent of the military rule in Myanmar, spent more than 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010. She rose to prominence during the ‘888’ protests in Myanmar in 1988, started by students in Yangon against the authoritarian one-party rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Ms. Suu Kyi, freshly returned from the United Kingdom, got involved in the movement and toured the country carrying out rallies for free and fair elections and democratic rule.
The military cracked down on the demonstrations and staged a coup in 1988. In 1989, Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the military. Despite her party NLD winning national elections in 1990, the junta declined to hand over the country’s leadership to her.
The NLD leader, seen as the harbinger of human rights for years in the international community, then remained under house arrest till 1995 and during that period, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her resistance. In 2000, the military once again placed her under house arrest for 19 months, only to arrest and detain her for three months in 2003. Subsequently, she was exiled one more time for the longest period till 2010.
She re-entered politics as part of the Opposition, till 2015, when an open election was held in Myanmar for the first time in two and a half decades. Her party NLD won with a landslide and did so again in the 2020 elections.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s image as a defender of human rights has been tainted since 2017 when the international community called her out for not responding to the military crackdown on Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine province.
- Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and the face of Myanmar's opposition to years of military rule, has been in detention since February 2021, when the junta took over the administration in a coup.
- Myanmar’s military regime, or Tatmadaw arrested the entire civilian leadership including Ms. Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country’s short-lived democratic administration.
- The military cracked down on the demonstrations and staged a coup in 1988. In 1989, Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the military.