The woman who fought for democracy for decades

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The woman who fought for democracy for decades

REUTERS Jorge Silva File Photo

Dec 6 Reuters -- Put on trial by the generals who overthrew her elected government in a coup that cut short democratic reforms she had fought for decades to bring about. Myanmar's ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced on Monday to four years in prison.

She was convicted of incitement and violations of a law on natural disasters in the first verdict in more than a dozen criminal cases filed against her since the Feb. 1 military takeover. Suu Kyi is 76 years old.

She had travelled to the UN's International Court of Justice in the Hague just 14 months before the coup to defend those same generals against charges of genocide over a 2017 military offensive that drove ethnic Rohingya Muslims out of Myanmar.

Suu Kyi's long struggle for democracy made her a heroine in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, and the mostly Western criticism she faced over the plight of the Rohingya had no negative impact on her popularity at home.

The Lady Suu Kyi had fulfilled the dreams of millions when her party won a landslide election in 2015 that established the Southeast Asian nation's first civilian government in half a century.

She spent 15 years under house arrest in the struggle for democracy, but her administration had to cohabit with the generals who retained control of defence and security.

Suu Kyi also oversaw tighter restrictions on the press and civil society while falling out with some former allies when the hybrid government failed to unite Myanmar's many ethnic groups or end its decade-long civil wars.

Her second election victory in November unnerved the military -- and it seized power on February 1, accusing voter fraud by her National League for Democracy party despite the rejection of the army's claims by the election commission and monitors.

The first criminal cases filed against Suu Kyi included breaching coronaviruses restrictions and possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies. There were more serious charges, including incitement, corruption and breaching the Official Secrets Act. She is facing a dozen cases with maximum sentences of more than 100 years. Protesters have taken to the streets in her name, calling for the release of Mother Suu despite hundreds of killings and thousands of detentions since the coup.

Suu Kyi was the daughter of independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when she was 2 years old, Suu Kyi spent much of her young life overseas. She attended Oxford University, met her husband, the British academic Michael Aris, and had two sons.

Before they married, Aris asked Aris to promise that he would not stop her if she needed to return home. She received a phone call in 1988 that changed their lives: her mother was dying.

She was swept up in the capital of Yangon, then known as Rangoon, in a student-led revolution against the junta that had plunged the country into a ruinous isolation.

Suu Kyi became the leader of the new movement, quoting her father's dream to build up a free Burma. The revolution was crushed, its leaders killed and jailed, and Suu Kyi was confined to her lakeside home. Speaking her name in public could earn her supporters a prison sentence, so they called her Lady Slightly built and soft-spoken, she played a pivotal role in keeping world attention on Myanmar's junta and its human rights record, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

She died in 1997, but she did not attend his funeral, fearful that she would not be allowed to return.

During a brief release from house arrest in 1998, she tried to visit supporters outside Yangon and was blocked by the army. She sat inside her van for several days and nights despite dehydration in the sweltering heat, and was said to have caught rainwater in an open umbrella.

She survived an assassination attempt in 2003 when pro-military men wielding spikes and rods attacked a convoy she was travelling in, killing and wounding some of her supporters.

The army put her under house arrest and from behind the gates, she gave weekly addresses to supporters, standing on rickety tables and talking about democracy under the watchful eyes of the police.

She was a Buddhist and spoke of her struggle in spiritual terms.

In 2010 the military started a series of democratic reforms and Suu Kyi was released before thousands of weeping, cheering supporters.

She was feted in the West. In 2012, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Myanmar, calling her an inspiration to people all over the world, including myself U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar were eased, though Suu Kyi remained cautious about the extent of reforms.

The Western optimism generated by Suu Kyi's 2015 election win evaporated two years later when Rohingya militants attacked security forces and the military responded with an offensive that expelled more than 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar.

U.N. investigators said in August 2018 that the Myanmar military had carried out mass rape and killings.

In December 2019, Suu Kyi defended the military operation before the U.N. International Court of Justice, describing it as a counterterrorism response and asking the court to dismiss a genocide accusation brought by Gambia.