On 1 February 2021, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and deposed by the Myanmar military, along with other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, after the Myanmar military declared the November 2020 general election results fraudulent. When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the Norwegian Nobel Committee dubbed her struggle against the country’s military junta “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. Even now, after her reputation has been tarnished by allegations that as Myanmar’s leader she turned a blind eye to ethnic cleansing and genocide, there are few who doubt Suu Kyi’s bravery. Many, however, would question her wisdom. This is not the first time that she has been arrested. In 1988, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest shortly after returning to Myanmar. Rather than relent or retreat, she stood her ground. She suffered 15 years of house arrest, becoming a global symbol for democracy. Suu Kyi, who had since 2016 been Myanmar’s top civilian leader, was arrested Monday as part of a military coup. But almost three decades after her Nobel Peace Prize win, there is little global support for her after her journey from political prisoner to pariah politician. Some former allies suggested that Suu Kyi, now 75 years old, bore some responsibility for Myanmar’s failed democratic experience and recent violence against the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic minority that lives in western Myanmar.
Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945, at the tail end of World War II. Her father, Aung San, was a political leader who helped Myanmar, also known as Burma, chart its independence from Britain. Aung San was assassinated in 1947, less than a year before the country’s independence. Myanmar’s powerful military, known as Tatmadaw, dominated the initial attempts at democracy in the country and, after a coup in 1962, a military junta was installed that would last for decades. Suu Kyi’s mother was a diplomat, and the family spent much of her childhood outside the country. Suu Kyi was educated in India and in England, where she studied at Oxford University and met her future husband, British historian Michael Aris.
In 1988, when she was 43 years old, she returned to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother and became a political force in the country, which was in the midst of the bloody pro-democracy Uprising. Suu Kyi formed the National League for Democracy and won a landslide election in 1990, but the military refused to cede power. Instead, she was kept under house arrest at a huge personal cost. She last saw her husband in 1995. He was subsequently refused permission to visit and died of cancer in 1999. The couple’s two sons were only able to resume regular visits after she was released. She was placed under house arrest for a total of 15 years over a 21-year period, on numerous occasions, since she began her political career, during which time she was prevented from meeting her party supporters and international visitors. In an interview, she said that while under house arrest she spent her time reading philosophy, politics, and biographies that her husband had sent her. She also passed the time playing the piano and was occasionally allowed visits from foreign diplomats as well as from her personal physician.
Although under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was granted permission to leave Burma under the condition that she never return, which she refused. The media were also prevented from visiting Aung San Suu Kyi, as occurred in 1998 when journalist Maurizio Giuliano, after photographing her, was stopped by customs officials who then confiscated all his films, tapes, and some notes. In contrast, Aung San Suu Kyi did have visits from government representatives, such as during her autumn 1994 house arrest when she met the leader of Burma, General Than Shwe, and General Khin Nyunt on 20 September in the first meeting since she had been placed in detention. On several occasions during her house arrest, she had periods of poor health and as a result, was hospitalized.
The Burmese government detained and kept Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned because it viewed her as someone “likely to undermine the community peace and stability” of the country and used both Article 10(a) and 10(b) of the 1975 State Protection Act (granting the government the power to imprison people for up to five years without a trial), and Section 22 of the “Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts” as legal tools against her. She continuously appealed her detention and many nations and figures continued to call for her release and that of 2,100 other political prisoners in the country. On 12 November 2010, days after the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won elections conducted after a gap of 20 years, the junta finally agreed to sign orders allowing Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and Suu Kyi’s house arrest term came to an end on 13 November 2010. But her international reputation suffered severely following an army crackdown on the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. Former supporters accused her of refusing to condemn the military or acknowledge accounts of atrocities.
This time her arrest was very filmy, in the early hours of Monday, the army’s TV station said power had been handed over to Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. Ms. Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested in a series of raids. It is not clear where they are being held. No major violence has been reported. Soldiers blocked roads in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and the main city, Yangon. International and domestic TV channels, including the state broadcaster, went off the air. Internet and phone services were disrupted. Banks said they had been forced to close. Later, the military announced that 24 ministers and deputies had been removed, and 11 replacements had been named, including in finance, health, the interior, and foreign affairs. The grievances which have been driving tension between the military and the government are well enough known. The military-backed party, the USDP, performed poorly in last November’s general election, whereas the NLD did even better than in 2015. The timing of this coup is also easily explained. This week the first session of parliament since the election was due to start, which would have enshrined the election result by approving the next government. That will no longer happen. But the military’s longer game plan is hard to fathom. What do they plan to do in the year they have given themselves to run the country? There will be public anger over a coup so soon after an election in which 70% of voters defied the Covid-19 pandemic to vote so overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi.