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The Week
The Week Staff

Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar’s controversial former leader receives ‘confusing’ pardon

World must ‘not fall for this nonsense’ as jail sentence is cut by only six years

The former Myanmar leader Aung Suu Kyi has had her 33-year jail term reduced.

The nation’s ruling military “shaved” six years off Suu Kyi’s term, said The Times, pardoning her on five of the 19 charges for which she was convicted following a military coup in 2021.

Myanmar analyst Aung Thu Nyein told Deutsche Welle there were rumours that Suu Kyi could be set free, but the junta has decided to reduce her sentence instead.

“The pardon of the junta seems confusing,” he said. “I expect more lenient treatment for her, but I don’t expect immediate change as long as [the government] feels secure.”

The military rulers must “take us for fools”, wrote Benedict Rogers for The Spectator. The “brutal generals” hope to “score a propaganda win, creating the impression of leniency”, he added, and “it is vital” that the international community “does not fall for this nonsense”.

Suu Kyi, who is 78 and will remain under house arrest, denies all the charges, which were brought against her by the military junta that seized power in February last year. The allegations ranged from breaching Covid restrictions to illegal importation of walkie-talkies.

But they are “widely seen as a ploy by the junta to put an end to her political career and remove the biggest obstacle to them exercising total power”, said The Times.

Path to victory

The now controversial Suu Kyi was once lauded for her struggle to bring democracy to military-ruled Myanmar, and for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. But she has come under criticism in recent years for her refusal to condemn the genocide of Rohingya Muslims, a minority in the country.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero who was assassinated when she was only two years old, just before the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

“Inspired by the non-violent campaigns of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King and India’s Mahatma Gandhi”, Suu Kyi led a revolt against dictator General Ne Win in 1988, calling for “peaceful democratic reform and free elections”, said the BBC.

The demonstrations were “brutally suppressed” by the army, which seized power in a coup on 18 September 1988. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest a year later.

In 2015, her National League for Democracy (NLD) party was democratically elected in a “landslide” victory. The country’s electoral rules, which exclude those with foreign national children, meant that Suu Kyi could not become president.

Instead, the title was given to her close aide Win Myint, but Suu Kyi was widely regarded as the de facto ruler of Myanmar.

A potent force

Supporters of Suu Kyi have claimed that the “baseless” charges against her are “designed to end her political career” and to “tie her up in legal proceedings while the military consolidates power”, Reuters reported.

Historian and author Thant Myint U told the news agency that military leaders believed political reforms introduced by their predecessors had “gone too far” in allowing Suu Kyi back on the political stage.

Last year’s coup was intended to “exclude her”, he said, adding: “She remains far and away the most popular (figure) in Myanmar politics and may still be a potent force in what’s to come.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that the more serious charges against Suu Kyi were intended to ensure that she “is never allowed to be a free woman again”.

But her jailing was likely to “bolster the pro-democracy campaign in the country”, according to Aye Min Thant, a Burmese-American writer based in Bangkok.

“Now we’ve seen a parallel government spring up, we’ve seen a huge civil disobedience movement,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist told Deutsche Welle. “I don’t think this verdict was a surprise to most people. I think people had planned to continue the resistance without having Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader.”

Any hope of release?

The junta has allowed Suu Kyi to meet foreign diplomats and last week a Chinese special envoy was given permission to speak with her, reports say.

This step is especially significant as “Myanmar’s government has been boosting ties with China amid Western sanctions”, said Deutsche Welle. “The move has given rise to speculation that Beijing was pressuring the junta into concessions.”

In 2022, the UK described Suu Kyi’s legal battle with the junta as an “appalling attempt by Myanmar’s military regime to stifle opposition and suppress freedom and democracy”.

However, Suu Kyi has also faced criticism in the West over her handling of the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar is facing a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice over allegations of genocide, and the International Criminal Court is investigating potential crimes against humanity.

But at home, she remains “wildly popular” with Myanmar’s Bamar ethnic majority, according to the BBC.

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