A pall of bitter deja vu hung over Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial appearance in Myanmar on Monday, as the country enters its fourth decade of an epic feud between a repressive military and an individual who has tied her destiny to a divided nation-state.
Suu Kyi’s first public appearance since the February 1 military coup that toppled her elected administration was reminiscent of so many previous police-state pantomimes.
As Myanmar implodes in post-putsch violence, with protests, armed conflict, civil disobedience and growing urban warfare, Suu Kyi’s predicament has not been as prominent as before, and the in-person hearing has temporarily refocused attention on her and leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD).
This was no genuine legal procedure: it was the performance of military repression. The charges against Suu Kyi are a mixture of the absurdly petty, likely accurate and utterly insane.
Possessing unregistered walkie-talkies, the first offense to justify her post-coup detention, captures the currish character of the Tatmadaw as the first offense to justify her imprisonment.
Charges of breaching Covid-19 legal restrictions on gatherings during the election campaign likely have merit, with five claims in Naypyidaw and one in Yangon under the Natural Disaster Law.
Suu Kyi without argument relied on incumbent advantage to loosely interpret pandemic restrictions, and many NLD supporters campaigned as if the coronavirus was irrelevant, to the chagrin of their opponents in other parties. But so too has the Tatmadaw largely ignored pandemic protocols, before and after the coup.
Alleged breaches of Section 505 of the Penal Code Section, stemming from a letter the NLD sent to foreign embassies calling on them to reject the coup make up other charges.
There are suggestions Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders could be charged with treason under the Penal Code, provisions of which received a post-coup boost to include sentences of 20 years for anyone criticizing the government or security services.
The Tatmadaw has been painstakingly compiling a barely credulous compendium of fabrication of intensive election fraud, a labyrinthine conspiracy theory that forms the fundamental justification for the coup.
The State Administration Council (SAC) junta is following the steps of its military predecessors since 1962 of always cloaking legal justification for bureaucratic authoritarianism.
This is a system that prosecuted an 80-year-old Buddhist nun in 2007 with illegal possession of explosives and pornography after the popular “Saffron Revolution” protests of September that year, and laid multiple petty charges against a range of dissidents.
U Ko Ko Gyi, once one of Myanmar’s most celebrated 1988 Uprising generation of activists was handed a 65-year sentence with hard labor for some 21 various ‘offenses’ in November 2008 (he was freed in 2012).
In a peculiar permutation of the ‘Naypyidaw Syndrome’ of engaging with the SAC, Ko Ko Gyi attended a meeting of the Union Election Commission (UEC) on 21 May, with 59 other political parties, despite his People’s Party winning no seats in the November 2020 election, and many of his party members resigning in protest at his collaboration with the SAC.
At Friday’s UEC meeting, the UEC chair debated the dissolution of the NLD for its alleged breaches of electoral laws: a move that would hurl the party back 30 years.
Suu Kyi’s long years under house arrest were justified by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), almost a caricature of military despotism that the SAC is clearly modeling itself on, by the 1975 State Protection Law, otherwise known as the “Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts.”
During those long years of detention, the SLORC regime engaged in a detestable campaign of public vilification of Suu Kyi and her supporters in the state media, including crude cartoons vilifying her marriage to a British man, vituperative “opinion pieces” penned by military intelligence officers and taunting coverage of the military’s repression of the NLD.
The state media hasn’t reverted thus far to those racist, xenophobic tropes, but the farcical legal proceedings demonstrated on Monday are true to type. But Suu Kyi will be all-too familiar with the military’s often outrageous tactics of intimidation and repression.
They were seen in a series of violent events, including an attack on her car in 1996 by the SLORC’s thuggish auxiliaries in the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which later became the military-aligned Union Solidarity Development Party (UDSP) that her NLD crushed at last year’s polls.
They were seen when they uncoupled her train carriage when she tried to travel to Mandalay. There were seen in some truly bizarre standoffs in the Irrawaddy Delta when she was stopped at small checkpoints and refused to leave her car and return to Yangon, eventually being forcefully manhandled back into house arrest.
In May of 2003, following a year of relative freedom in which she toured the country, often to rapturous receptions from supporters, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and USDA supporters attacked Suu Kyi’s motorcade near Depayin in Sagaing Division, killing an estimated 70 of her supporters. The incident has never been properly investigated, nor have the perpetrators faced justice.
In May 2009, Suu Kyi was visited by a mentally unbalanced American man, John Yettaw, who swam across Inya Lake to her house. Yettaw claimed to have had “visions” of Suu Kyi’s demise, and had concocted a plan to spirit her out of her compound disguised in the burqa’s he had brought along, under the noses of the police guards.
Suu Kyi went on trial with her two housekeepers, charged with breaching the conditions of her detention order. The trial was possibly the most bizarre event of her 30 years of Kafkaesque legal proceedings, and not surprisingly resulted in her detention being extended to November 13, 2010 – just six days before Myanmar held it first nationwide election in 20 years, which the NLD refused to contest because Suu Kyi and some 430 other party members were barred from running.
The SLORC/SPDC legal fumblings failed to dim widespread public support for Suu Kyi, who entered parliament in 2012 and swept to power in landslide 2015 elections. Suu Kyi will likely continue to receive support from her many supporters in Myanmar, as witnessed in the recent street protests where demonstrators hold her likeness on signs and banners.
The 2020 election result was a mixture of Suu Kyi veneration, a popular desire to continue the democratic transition despite its obviously manifold flaws, and a message to the military to stay out of politics.
But this must be balanced with understanding the roots of resentment of Suu Kyi by many communities and constituents who genuinely feel betrayed by her imperious disregard of their aspirations and had justifiable concerns of a de facto NLD-led one-party state in which many policy directions were in broad simpatico with the Tatmadaw.
None of these indisputable character flaws in any way justified the military coup, nor did electoral shortcomings. Suu Kyi’s many critics shouldn’t feel shame for a sliver of Schadenfreude at this pompous populist being hoisted on her own legal petard. The NLD leader failed to pursue meaningful reform and repeal of repressive laws during her five years in power.
One of only a few laws the NLD repealed was the 1975 State Protection Act. The numbers of political prisoners actually grew, women’s rights were largely ignored and civil society was marginalized. She openly disdained the pursuit of meaningful peace and inclusion of ethnic nationalities throughout Myanmar. Not to mention the nadir of her career: defending the Tatmadaw at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in late 2019 over mass atrocity crimes against the Rohingya.
The international emphasis will continue to be on Suu Kyi’s immediate and unconditional release. But unlike the 1990s, when she became the primary focus of international attention on Myanmar’s plight, intensive focus must also be on the 4,300 other prisoners in mostly more abysmal conditions, the 1,841 in hiding from fear of arrest, the 800 people murdered by security services and the inestimable suffering of civilians caught in the violence at Mutraw in Kayin state, Mindat in Chin state and Loikaw in Kayah, among other places.
Myanmar must not return to a one-individual obsessed cause. Indeed, that is what blinded so many foreigners to the country’s complexity over the past decade. The West is clearly going wobbly on pressuring the SAC and is looking apathetically for what some are already terming “exit ramps” to seek “compromises” with the Tatmadaw.
Suu Kyi’s trial and the threats against the NLD demonstrate — on top of the nationwide carnage being perpetrated by the SAC’s forces against pro-democracy protesters — what is obvious to most inside Myanmar: There is no deal to be made with the Tatmadaw and there will be no justice for Suu Kyi or the thousands of others hauled in front of junta-run kangaroo courts.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace, human rights and humanitarian issues in Myanmar