During 15 years under house arrest, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi transformed from a national figure into a global icon of democracy, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and a host of other accolades.
She was finally released in 2010, and five years later, military rule ended as the country held its first free elections in 25 years, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide.
Suu Kyi’s victory was lauded within the international community, where it was viewed by many as a triumph of democratic values over the forces of authoritarianism. But true democracy requires more than a single election victory.
The constitution which abolished the military junta maintained for the generals a huge amount of power and influence, leaving Suu Kyi and the NLD in a delicate position as they tried to maintain democratic rights, while avoiding tilting the country backwards into military rule.
This tension was most evident in how Suu Kyi responded to a crackdown by the security services in the western state of Rakhine, from where almost a million ethnic Rohingya have fled and the army has been accused of ethnic cleansing and other horrific crimes like gang rape, torture, extrajudicial killings.
While Suu Kyi had little direct authority over actions by the security forces, her public defense of the military — she has called reports of acts of genocide “misinformation” and blamed problems in the region on “terrorists” — saw her denounced overseas, and stripped of numerous titles she won as a democracy campaigner.
Despite this, Suu Kyi remained highly popular in Myanmar itself, and some observers saw her refusal to criticize the military as a necessary pill to swallow to maintain civilian rule. Whether due to compromise or actual belief in what she was saying, it all turned out to be for little this week, as the military seized power in a coup, arresting Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders.
Ten years after her initial release, Suu Kyi now appears to be heading back to where her rise to international prominence began: in detention, her fate at the whims of the Tatmadaw, the military which has ruled over Myanmar for most of the last 50 years.
The circumstances of her arrest this time are far different, however. Suu Kyi is no longer “Asia’s Mandela,” as she was once called. Her complicity in the atrocities against the Rohingya saw her hemorrhaging allies in the West, with even longtime friends denouncing her and calling on her to speak out against the military.
“The West has gone very cold on Aung San Suu Kyi which makes it challenging to back, or speak out strongly, for the National League for Democracy in the same way as the US and Europe did in the 1990s to mid 2010s,” said Tamas Wells, an expert on Myanmar at the University of Melbourne, adding that figures in the military “definitely know this and see that she has less leverage with the international community now.”
While the military gave up some power in the transition to partial democracy, it maintained a tight grip over defense and security matters, including in Rakhine, where soldiers have been accused of burning villages during so-called “clearance operations,” mass rapes, killings and other atrocities.
The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 people were killed in the crackdown since 2016, which was launched after small scale attacks on border posts and police checkpoints by a Rohingya militant group. Some 720,000 people have fled into neighboring Bangladesh, where they have been housed in the world’s biggest refugee camp, at severe risk of malnutrition, flooding and more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
In response to reports coming out of Rakhine, the United States has sanctioned multiple senior Myanmar military figures, including Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing, who the junta said will lead the country after Suu Kyi was deposed.
This growing pressure had seen both the military and Suu Kyi’s civilian government growing close to Beijing, a formerly strong ally during the junta years which had lost out to Washington as the country transitioned to democracy.
Speaking to CNN Monday, Melissa Crouch, an expert on Myanmar at the University of New South Wales, said that the generals may see such alliances as a potential counterweight to any international outrage that might come as a result of the coup.
“Myanmar has China and Russia on their side, they are not worried about Western democracies,” she said, pointing to recent visits by delegations from both Beijing and Moscow ahead of the coup.
Wells, the University of Melbourne expert, said that Myanmar’s military elites “learned very well how to bunker down in the face of international criticism.”
“And it is arguable that the strong sanctions (on the) regimes of the 1990s and 2000s by the West didn’t do a lot to shift the stance of military elites at the time,” he added. “Covid has obviously taken a toll on the economy and there are already targeted sanctions in place. So there are not a lot of obvious levers for the West to pull.”
The biggest challenge to the coup will come internally, Wells said, and will depend on the military’s ability to control an activist community and middle class that is considerably empowered since 2015, as well businesses and others who have benefited from the international engagement that came after the transition to democracy and will be unwilling to see the country slip back into pariah status.
“In Myanmar there are a lot of people making a lot of money, and they will be pressuring military elites to not disrupt the growth and stability that there has been in the cities,” he added.
And while she has fallen from grace in the eyes of the West, she remains enormously popular among regular citizens in Myanmar. During November’s elections, her party, the NLD, claimed to have won far more than the 322 seats needed to form a majority in parliament, and potentially more than the 390 seats it took in its 2015 landslide, though the military immediately accused the party of unspecified fraud.
As the coup unfolds, its leaders appear to be making a concerted effort to prevent Suu Kyi’s supporters and other opponents of military rule from organizing against them. As well as Suu Kyi and other senior NLD leaders, there were reports of arrests of numerous members of parliament, representatives of ethnic groups, and human rights activists.
Writing on Twitter, Kelley Currie, a former US State Department official, said that “they seem to be ’rounding up the usual suspects’ not because they are part of the NLD, but because they have a history of organizing the people, getting them in the streets, and they want to preempt that sort of thing.”
“Last time they pulled a coup, there was no (Facebook), no actual internet to speak of in Burma. Mobile phones cost $2,000 for a Nokia. Nobody had computers or cars. It was a different Burma,” she wrote, adding that senior military figures “may not realize this because they are still kind of disconnected from society.”
At least someone was aware of the potential for the internet to serve as a means to organize resistance however. As the coup was unfolding Monday morning, internet and phone coverage was cut off in parts of the country, and television stations were blocked or forced offline, as people scrambled to try and find out what was going on.
Thant Myint-U, author of “The Hidden History of Burma,” wrote on Twitter that watching developments unfolding, “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.”
“And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic (and) religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves,” he added.