Ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to two years in prison over breaches of the country’s COVID restrictions in the first of a number of trials, which – if she is found guilty of all the charges – could bring her a cumulative sentence of more than 100 years. She has been under house arrest since the country’s military took control in February. She denies all accusations against her.
The verdict and jail sentence have been condemned by several international organisations, including the United Nations, the European Union and the UK government, which described the trial as “politically motivated”. She was originally sentenced to four years, but that was cut in half by the country’s military chiefs, according to state TV.
It’s a long way from 2015, when the world celebrated her party’s landslide election triumph and she assumed the role of state counsellor. She was prevented from occupying the presidency by the country’s constitution put in place in 2008 by the military junta, but was internationally acknowledged as the centre of power in the country’s first civilian government.
Having been under house arrest for most of the period from 1989 to 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi’s election success leading the National League for Democracy (NLD) party was widely seen as her crowning moment, and a major opportunity for democracy in Myanmar. But her spectacular rise was matched by the speed of her fall from grace.
Partly as a result of the complex system of government, which effectively preserved a high degree of political power for the military, the pace of change was slow in Myanmar. The authorities were also facing long-term separatist insurgencies and, in 2017, a military crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State, saw thousands fleeing into Bangladesh.
Amid accusations of genocide, international support for the NLD government began to dwindle. It was a major blow to Aung San Suu Kyi’s international standing and prompted widespread calls for her 2001 Nobel peace prize to be revoked due to what was perceived to be her silence over the crisis. International condemnation only increased when she appeared at the International Court of Justice in December 2019 to defend Myanmar against the claims of genocide.
Her party was successful once again in the November 2020 election, but the military accused the NLD of perpetrating widespread voter fraud – an accusation dismissed by international observers. These claims of illegitimacy laid the foundations for the military takeover that occurred on February 1 this year.
Army consolidates power
Since the coup, military leadership have used the legal framework within Myanmar to consolidate their position. This is not an unusual thing to happen after a coup. As research by American political scientist Nancy Bermeo – among others – outlines, post-coup governments use the pre-existing legal premises and institutions to solidify the coup plotters’ positions and authorities.
The military junta has used the 2008 constitution, as a legal basis for the coup itself and the appointment of the new government and Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial is a logical extension of this. By following the letter of the constitution, which criminalises speech or actions deemed to cause “fear or alarm to the public”, the SAC is able to pretend at a semblance of fairness.
But the prosecutions of Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party has been heavily criticised both internationally and domestically. Court proceedings have remained closed to the public, and her lawyers have been banned from speaking publicly, so the process has remained highly opaque.
Suu Kyi’s sentencing has a sense of inevitability about it and does not come as much of a surprise to international observers. What it does reveal, though, is the confidence and self-assuredness of the State Administration Council (SAC), which has run the country since February in behalf of the army.
China has issued a cautious message of support and hopes for “the long-term interests of the country, narrow differences and carry on the hard-won democratic transition process”. Russia has yet to comment but has increasingly backed the SAC junta.
Yet responses to the trial and the coup are notable for their presence, with many international actors choosing to remain quiet or cautious in their official engagement with post-coup Myanmar. However, the international community must be cautious of such silences in the prosecution of the NLD leadership, as well as the thousands of protesters arrested since the coup earlier this year. Coup leaders use pre-existing political and legal structures to secure and legitimise their positions and this is exactly what the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrates. The legality of all trials is underwritten by the institutions that conduct them.
But post-coup governments tend to be highly vulnerable and therefore are cautious of international responses to their actions. By remaining silent, the international community effectively risks giving tacit approval to the consolidation of a government that came to power by force.
Anna B. Plunkett receives funding from the ESRC