Myanmar’s former head of state Aung San Suu Kyi was recently sentenced to four years in prison for “incitement” of violations of Covid-19 restrictions. The politician and human rights activist, who has been in house arrest for the past ten months since the military takeover of Myanmar in February 2021, was detained along with other leaders after the military junta took over the National League for Democracy government in a coup.
According to critics, the move is part of a longer plan by the military leadership in Myanmar to sideline Suu Kyi and NLD from the future of national politics in the country. This, however, is not Suu Kyi’s first brush with exile. The once-beloved activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who fell from grace following the 2017 Rohingya Muslim crisis, has seen many years in exile and under arrest.
Daughter of prominent Burmese politicians, Suu Kyi first rose to prominence as a political force after the ‘8888 Uprising’ in August 1998. The uprising, started by students in Yangon against the totalitarian Burma Socialist Programme Party's one-party rule soon spread across the country. The uprising gave fresh impetus to calls for democratisation in Myanmar with NLD winning elections in Myanmar with a nearly 81 per cent majority in 1990. But the government was not recognised by the military junta which continued to rule Myanmar under the State Law and Order Restoration Council.
Since then, between 1989 and 2010, Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for nearly 15 years.
Her first period under house arrest lasted from July 1989 to July 1995. She was put under house arrest once again in 2000 for 19 months. In 2003, she was again arrested and detained secretly for more than three months before exiling her at home. In 2007, protests were held in 12 cities around the world to mark 12 years of Suu Kyi’s incarceration. Before that, the then UN General Secretary had also made a direct appeal to Myanmar to release Suu Kyi. The activist, however, remained under house arrest till October 2010. The junta refused to relent and kept extending her detention on what critics claim were trumped up and ridiculous charges.
What was remarkable about her detainment was the fact that it was almost voluntary. The NLD leader was offered freedom on one condition - that she leave the country. Suu Kyi, however, chose to live out her house arrest in Myanmar itself, fighting for democracy and against the military dictatorship in the country.
Suu Kyi’s detainment attracted widespread international criticism of the military rule in Myanmar as well as outrage from human rights groups. In 1991, when Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace, the leader was still under house arrest. The world hailed her and an "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless". She also won the Sakharov Prize a year before that for her fearless ‘Freedom of Thought’.
The years of exile have been not only political but deeply personal for Suu Kyi who was not only kept from participating in politics or interacting with her supporters but also missed growing old with her husband or watching her sons mature. Her husband died of cancer in 1990 while she was still on house arrest. The activist, who has been hailed as one of the ‘Children of Gandhi’, maintained that her sacrifice and loss was nothing compared to that faced by many under the oppressive junta in Myanmar.
In 2015, NLD won the first openly held national elections in Myanmar in 25 years. She was given the state councillor title equivalent to being a Prime Minister and effectively became the head of the state despite not being appointed President. However, her government was deposed in 2021 by a coup-de-tat, sending Suu Kyi once again under into incarceration. Considering the legal challenges ahead of her this time, Suu Kyi might be looking at several years more in exile.
While Suu Kyi’s imprisonment has caused widespread outrage, the development has been bittersweet as far as Suu Kyi’s legacy is concerned. Having spent decades in defiance of the government, Suu Kyi disappointed many after coming to power when she refused to provide respite to the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar. The Rohingya crisis of 2017 and her subsequent defence of the military in Myanmar in N International Criminal Court hearing regarding human rights violations under the NLD government in Myanmar. Nevertheless, Say Kyi continues to conn and immense popularity and support from Buddhists in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s fresh incarceration is a sign of the military junta’s unwillingness to restore democracy in the conflict-ridden state. Suu Kyi’s exile, therefore, has once again become the symbol of Myanmar’s fight for democratisation against an oppressive regime.