Even with a partial pardon announced this week by Myanmar’s military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi still faces the prospect of being kept in detention until she is more than 100 years old, if she lives that long.
She has been held by the military since it seized power in a coup on 1 February 2021, and has been convicted of 19 offences – from sedition and illegal possession of walkie-talkies, to breaking pandemic rules and electoral fraud.
The military said on Tuesday that five of these would be dropped, meaning the 78-year-old will spend 27 years in detention rather than 33.
The announcement was timed to mark Buddhist Lent, when thousands of prisoners were due to be granted an amnesty, a common occurrence on Buddhist dates and special holidays.
Human rights groups have dismissed the development as meaningless, while both the UN secretary general’s office and the US State Department responded by reiterating their calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all others unjustly detained, as well as an end to violence.
Since the coup, the military has struggled to manage a determined opposition to its rule – including an armed resistance – and has resorted to torture, massacres, the torching of villages and air strikes.
The junta, unable to control much of the country, “thinks that making the preposterous move to reduce Aung San Suu Kyi’s prison sentence from 33 to 27 years will impress the outside world,” said Laetitia van den Assum, who was previously the Netherlands’ ambassador to Myanmar, as well as a member of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
Dylan Loh, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, said the symbolic change could give some neighbouring countries who favour resuming interactions with the junta “more reason to pursue their course of action”.
But it was unlikely to drastically change the stance of south-east Asian countries that have led attempts to resolve the crisis.
It was also unlikely to alter calculations being made by China, which has kept close ties with the military since the coup, and is mainly concerned with “ensuring economic stability and security, border security and that [its] influence over Myanmar endures”, he said.
Last year, the UN security council passed a resolution calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and an end to violence. China, Russia and India abstained.
Analysts have speculated that the junta has sought to use its detention of Aung San Suu Kyi to its advantage abroad and to undermine opponents at home.
Earlier this month, Thailand’s outgoing foreign minister Don Pramudwinai told a summit of neighbouring countries that he had met with Aung San Suu Kyi, making him the first foreign official to be granted access to her. He told ministers that she was in good health and supported dialogue to resolve the crisis.
The National Unity Government, which was founded to oppose junta rule and considers itself the country’s legitimate government, is firmly opposed to dialogue unless all political prisoners are released.
Figures from the NUG treated the comments with scepticism, stating that Aung San Suu Kyi is imprisoned and the account given was one-sided.
Analysts point out that this comes at a time when there is growing discussion of Aung San Suu Kyi’s role and status in the pro-democracy movement.
While she has remained cut off from the public, new activists and leaders have emerged, as has an element of solidarity among ethnic groups who find a common enemy in the military. This includes greater tolerance towards the Rohingya, who previously received little sympathy from the Bamar majority.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s role as the face of resistance in the democracy movement of the past, then as leader of the opposition, and finally as state counsellor in the National League for Democracy government leadership, has kept international and domestic attention focused mostly on her and her actions and pronouncements,” said Moe Thuzar, the coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
But she added: “Dynamics of the resistance to military rule that emerged after the 2021 coup, however, are different from the past.”
Mahn Win Khaing Than, theprime minister of the NUG, said on Tuesday that any improvement in Aung San Suu Kyi’s condition was welcome, but the military’s so-called pardon changed nothing.
“It does not change the daily bombing of villages, 17,000 people still in prison, economic ruin. It does not change our determination to end military rule in Myanmar.”