The Political Obituary of Aung San Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi may spend the rest of her life in political prison, but the fight for democracy in Myanmar rages on.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Thet Aung / AFP / Getty

As Aung San Suu Kyi climbed the steps of the gargantuan parliamentary building into her first session as an elected lawmaker, I watched along with my colleagues in the offices of The Myanmar Times, where we crowded around and turned our heads upward to the boxy televisions that hung precariously above the newsroom.

This was July 2012. Suu Kyi’s arrival had been delayed by a whirlwind 17-day lap around Europe. She’d collected an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize she’d won 21 years earlier while under house arrest as the country’s leading dissident. During the trip, Suu Kyi had surprised some when she struck a conciliatory tone while speaking about her military captors. “In some ways, I don’t think they did anything to me,” she replied when asked whether she forgave the military for her treatment. The comment provided an early, if at the time overlooked, indicator of how she viewed the organization that had inflicted decades of hardship on Myanmar (known as Burma until 1989).

Suu Kyi’s debut in Parliament was one in a string of firsts that would enrapture the nation of roughly 54 million as it began to emerge from nearly 60 years of direct military rule. Earlier that spring, Suu Kyi had left the country for the first time in 24 years, on a trip across the border to Thailand. A few weeks after her debut in Parliament, work in our dated newsroom paused again and eyes turned up to the televisions as she rose and made her first speech to the chamber. We did so again that fall, when then–U.S. President Barack Obama’s motorcade rolled through Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country. “O-Burma” read the front-page headline in The Myanmar Times.

This second act for Suu Kyi, as an elected politician rather than an opposition figure, turned out to be short-lived. Over the next seven years, she rose to become Myanmar’s de facto leader, but then saw her international reputation tumble from globally respected icon of democracy to defender of the most heinous actions of the same military that has, yet again, imprisoned her. But the anti-junta and prodemocracy movement that emerged after the military seized power in a February coup has over the past 10 months hardened and is now about much more than Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy.

Yesterday, in a closed-door trial, Suu Kyi was convicted on one charge of incitement to cause public alarm and another of flouting pandemic rules. The first charge stems from an unsigned letter the NLD published calling on international organizations not to cooperate with the junta; the second is for COVID-protocol violations during Suu Kyi’s reelection campaign last year. She was sentenced to four years in detention, but hours after the decision was handed down, state media announced that her sentence had been reduced by two years. Even with this decision, a tactic Myanmar’s military rulers have sometimes used to appear magnanimous, she will likely face a significantly longer sentence by the time the junta is done with her. The charges are the first of a dozen piled on her following the coup, which the military has attempted to justify with dubious claims of voter fraud. The maximum sentences of the charges against her add up to more than a century.

Ham-fistedly banishing Suu Kyi from politics may provide the generals with a satisfying moment of vengeance, but it will not halt the anti-junta resistance. The movement has progressed well beyond early calls for Suu Kyi’s freedom and the restoration of the election’s results, which the NLD won by a landslide. If the military believes that badly hobbling the NLD and locking away Suu Kyi will be a death knell for the opposition movement, it has failed to recognize the depth of the public’s anger—and that the resistance is more anti-junta than it is pro–Suu Kyi.

Immediately following the coup, many people in Myanmar thought in “institutional terms and opposed the military takeover,” Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute, a policy-advocacy organization in Yangon, told me. “The huge protests had an almost carnival atmosphere, but things changed when the shootings and killings began. The world needs to know that the people fighting the junta are not doing it for Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD. The notion that the opposition will collapse if Aung San Suu Kyi is not there is a big, dangerous delusion.”

The daughter of Aung San, Myanmar’s anti-colonial independence hero, Suu Kyi returned to her homeland from England in 1988 to tend to her ailing mother. The visit coincided with nationwide protests that would eventually be known as the 8888 Uprising. Suu Kyi joined the movement and, owing to a combination of personal charisma and family legacy, was elevated to a revered status. This came with a cost. As the leader of the opposition, she would be detained off and on at her lakeside home for some 15 years, finally winning her release in 2010. She took her place in Parliament two years later, rising to elected office against a backdrop of broader but still limited political and economic liberalization.

Myanmar’s banking system and telecoms sector, both badly dated and subject to onerous levels of state control, began to be reformed. Civil-society groups and labor unions that had been forced to operate in secret emerged from the shadows. Many of the constraints on the press were lifted. The changes brought a wave of returnees, eager to contribute to the country’s new path. Nathan Maung, a former student activist who fled in the late 1990s, returned to launch an online news outlet. “When I got back to Burma in 2012, it was changing,” he told me. “I was so excited for the future.”

The opening also brought a rush of foreigners, an eclectic collection that included do-gooders, carpetbaggers, and backpackers. There were also development and aid experts who had spent decades working with little fanfare or support on the Thai-Myanmar border, and academics who had dedicated their careers to researching the largely ignored country. Some businesspeople seemed genuinely interested in helping the country develop, but others were boomtown leeches and wandering oddities. A Belarusian video-game firm bankrolled a failed excavation of lost World War Two airplanes that likely didn’t exist.

The upbeat mood in Yangon betrayed what was happening elsewhere. A 17-year cease-fire between the military and a major armed ethnic group, the Kachin Independence Army, broke down in 2011. A year later, violence erupted on the country’s western border. As a result, members of the Muslim Rohingya minority were confined to squalid camps, where they still reside. Deadly anti-Muslim riots broke out in a number of cities across the country in 2013. Suu Kyi, although still technically just a member of Parliament, carried an unrivaled moral authority but rarely wielded it in opposition to this violence.

In the run-up to the 2015 election, the NLD snubbed members of a prominent activist group who tried to join its ranks. The NLD also decided not to field any Muslim candidates out of fear of angering racist ultranationalists. These controversies hardly dented Suu Kyi’s domestic popularity, and the NLD swept to power. Constitutionally barred from the presidency because her two sons have foreign citizenship (as did her late husband, a British academic) but firmly at the helm of her party, Suu Kyi created the position of state counselor, making herself the country’s highest-ranking civilian official. Ethnic groups, progessives, and some members of the media chafed at Suu Kiy’s martinet qualities—she demanded unquestioning loyalty and was quickly dismissive of criticism—but the foreign governments that had long supported her clung to the notion that she was the sole hope for Myanmar, even as her words and actions, particularly about the plight of the Rohingya, became more difficult to defend.

International condemnation of Suu Kyi reached its apex in 2019, when she traveled to The Hague to defend the military against charges of genocide for its horrific campaign of violence against the Rohingya. Even as her global allies abandoned her, Suu Kyi was viewed sympathetically by many in Myanmar, who defended her as unfairly maligned and attacked by Westerners who didn’t understand the constraints of the country’s political system, in which the military still held considerable power. But if Suu Kyi’s efforts to stand with the military were designed to curry favor in an effort to spur further political change, they proved to be for naught.

The NLD again won by enormous margins in the November 2020 election, but as the opening of the new Parliament drew near, rumors, never in short supply in Myanmar, swirled about heightened tensions between the military and Suu Kyi. Whatever was left of the “transition to democracy” was obliterated when Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander in chief, seized power in the early hours of February 1. Suu Kyi spent “significant energy in not challenging the military’s entrenched power, their money, their impunity and their weaponry, and even going so far as to excuse their crimes against humanity,” says David Mathieson, an independent analyst who researches human-rights and humanitarian issues in Myanmar. Eventually, the military decided that it no longer needed to pretend that anyone else was in charge.

The initial demonstrations after the coup had an optimistic feeling, as huge numbers of people protested—not just in large cities but in towns and villages across the country. But after initially showing restraint, the military resorted to the type of violence that has been its hallmark for decades: firing on protesters, burning down homes, and torturing individuals under arrest. Security forces have killed more than 1,300 people. Compounding the country’s problems are the junta’s mismanagement of the pandemic and a disastrous economic downturn caused by the coup. The crackdown dramatically darkened the mood and has led to a shift in methods for those opposed to the junta.

The military’s brutality has radicalized many protesters, Htet Myat, a former army captain who defected in June, told me. “Our revolution did not change, but rather expanded in its goals,” he said. A number of newly formed militias, some supported by a diverse shadow government formed after the coup, are waging a countrywide guerrilla campaign that has cast aside the mantra of nonviolence long preached by Suu Kyi. A 19-year-old former university student who joined one such “people’s defense force” told me he was disillusioned with Suu Kyi’s efforts to work with the military. (He asked not to be identified, because of safety concerns.) His group is fighting for “a political arena that no longer includes Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “We are working to build a true federal union for the whole country.”

Until now, the NLD has always been firmly in Suu Kyi’s control. She commanded all of its decisions, surrounded by a small circle made up primarily of elderly men. But they too have been sidelined by age or systematically targeted by the junta. “The NLD is now decapitated,” Ye Myo Hein, a public-policy fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., told me. He added that the NLD would still be an important and popular party if elections were to take place, as the junta has promised, but that it would likely assume a new form, led by younger members.

Nathan Maung, the journalist, was arrested in March. He was tortured by soldiers, he said, and held for 98 days before being freed and deported to the U.S., where he is a citizen. “This is a very interesting moment,” Maung told me. Even if Suu Kyi were to be released, he doubts she would be able to stop the opposition figures—her allies—who have taken up arms. Maung said he is confident in the ability of militias to eventually beat back the military, though many others have cautioned that the country is headed for a protracted period of violence and disarray.

“In the past, everybody was asking, ‘What about beyond Aung San Suu Kyi?’” he said. “We didn’t have an answer for that, but now we do.”