Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi convicted in further blow to democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s ousted leader, has had her jail sentence reduced by two years, state television announced, after being convicted of incitement and another charge. Ms Suu Kyi, who was ousted in a de facto coup this year, was sentenced to four years in prison earlier in the day after being convicted on charges widely dismissed as politically motivated. But hours later, her sentence was cut in half by the country’s military leader.

State television reported that her sentence had been reduced to two years in an amnesty and indicated she would not serve it in prison but instead where she is currently being detained. The convictions serve to cement a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Nobel Peace laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest for resisting the nation’s generals but then agreed to work alongside them when they promised to usher in democratic rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be hugely popular and a symbol of the struggle against military rule in Myanmar (Khin Maung Win/AP)

The verdict on Monday was the first in a series of cases brought against the 76-year-old since her arrest on February 1, the day the army seized power and prevented her National League for Democracy party starting a second term in office. If found guilty of all the charges she faces, Ms Suu Kyi could be sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.

She is being held by the military at an unknown location. The court earlier offered a 10-month reduction in the sentence for time served, according to a legal official. The state TV report did not mention any credit for time served.

The army seized power claiming massive voting fraud in the November 2020 election, which Ms Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide. Independent election observers did not detect any major irregularities. Opposition to the takeover sprang up almost immediately and remains strong, with armed resistance spreading after the military’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests.

The verdict could inflame tensions even further. The cases against Ms Suu Kyi are widely seen as contrived to discredit her and keep her from running in the next election since the constitution bars anyone sent to prison after being convicted of a crime from holding high office or becoming a politician.

The harsh sentences handed down to Aung San Suu Kyi on these bogus charges are the latest example of the military’s determination to eliminate all opposition and suffocate freedoms in Myanmar. — Amnesty International (@amnesty) December 6, 2021

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the proceedings a “sham trial”, while Amnesty International said it was “the latest example of the military’s determination to eliminate all opposition and suffocate freedoms in Myanmar”.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the trial was just the beginning of a process that “will most likely ensure that Suu Kyi is never allowed to be a free woman again”. The United States joined others in calling for the release of Ms Suu Kyi and others who are detained. “The regime’s continued disregard for the rule of law and its widespread use of violence against the Burmese people underscore the urgency of restoring Burma’s path to democracy,” said secretary of state Antony Blinken in a statement, using a former name for Myanmar.

As is typical, China, a neighbour that has maintained friendly ties with Myanmar’s military leaders, declined to criticise the verdict. Beijing hopes “all parties in Myanmar will bear in mind the long-term interests of the country, narrow differences and carry on the hard-won democratic transition process,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi convicted in further blow to democracyProtesters hold portraits of the deposed leader during an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay, Myanmar, in March (AP)

Ms Suu Kyi is widely revered at home for her role in the country’s pro-democracy movement — and was long viewed abroad as an icon of that struggle, epitomised by her 15 years under house arrest. But since her release in 2010, she has been heavily criticised for the gamble she made: showing deference to the military while ignoring and, at times, even defending rights violations — most notably a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that rights groups have labelled genocide.

While she has disputed allegations that army personnel killed Rohingya civilians, torched houses and raped women and she remains immensely popular at home, that stance has tarnished her reputation abroad. On Monday, she faced an incitement charge that centred on statements posted on her party’s Facebook page after she and other party leaders were detained by the military. She was accused of spreading false or inflammatory information that could disturb public order.

In addition, she was accused of violating coronavirus restrictions for her appearance at a campaign event ahead of the elections last year. Ms Suu Kyi’s trials are closed to the media and spectators, and her lawyers, who had been a source of information on the proceedings, were served with gag orders in October forbidding them from releasing information. Defence lawyers are expected to file appeals in the coming days for Ms Suu Kyi and two colleagues who were also convicted on Monday, the legal official who relayed the verdict said.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi convicted in further blow to democracyThe military took Ms Suu Kyi into custody on the day of its takeover (AP)

They have argued that Ms Suu Kyi and a co-defendant, former president Win Myint, could not be held responsible for the statements on which the incitement charge was based because they were already in detention when the statements were posted.

The former president’s sentence was reduced along with Ms Suu Kyi’s. February’s seizure of power was met by nonviolent nationwide demonstrations, which security forces quashed with deadly force. They have killed about 1,300 civilians, according to a detailed tally compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Amid the severe crackdown on peaceful protests, armed resistance has grown in the cities and countryside, to the point that UN experts have warned the country is sliding into civil war. Protest marches on Sunday against the military government called for the release of Ms Suu Kyi and others. Decisions in other cases against Ms Suu Kyi are expected next week.

The military says its takeover was lawful and not a coup because the 2008 constitution — implemented under military rule — allows it to take control in certain emergencies. It argues that the 2020 general election contained widespread irregularities and thus constituted such an emergency. The state election commission and independent observers have disputed that there was substantial fraud.

Critics also assert that the takeover bypassed the legal process for declaring an emergency.