In the last decade, Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being one of the most prominent symbols of democracy in the world to being one of the most rebuked.
Her father, the founder of Myanmar’s military, became a politician and activist who devoted himself to the effort to win independence from Britain but was assassinated before he could see that achieved. Suu Kyi studied in India and England before returning to Myanmar and becoming involved in the democracy movement and rising in its leadership, co-founding the National League for Democracy party. A prominent opponent of the military that controlled the oil- and mineral-rich country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, she was put under house arrest for years, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
Eventually she became the de facto leader of a blended government, in which the military agreed to share power with civilians elected by the people of Myanmar. It was an extraordinary — if imperfect — collaboration and it put Myanmar, once shunned and sanctioned by the U.S. government and other Western countries, on a new footing with the U.S.
But things went wrong in just a matter of years. It became shockingly clear that Suu Kyi had no interest in extending democratic rights to her country’s Rohingya Muslims, one of the most oppressed minorities in the world. When the military was accused of the massacre of Rohingya — deemed to be genocide by U.N. investigators — at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2017, she spoke in defense of the military, cementing her transition from revered to reviled in the eyes of former admirers.
In February, the fragile democracy crumbled and the military retook power, ousting Suu Kyi (and other civilian leaders) and holding her at an undisclosed location. In the last year, the military has killed 1,300 people and arrested more than 10,700, according to the most recent count by the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based human rights group.
Now, Suu Kyi has been found guilty of absurd charges — inciting public unrest and breaching COVID protocols — and sentenced to two years under house arrest. She faces more charges that could put her in prison for the rest of her life. She is 76.
No matter how disappointing and grievous Suu Kyi’s refusal to protect the Rohingya has been, everyone who believes in democracy and the rule of law should be outraged about her ongoing imprisonment by the military. The conviction is nothing less than an attempt to permanently sideline a political figure whose party won two landslide elections in a row, the most recent in November 2020.
It is one more alarming sign of the Myanmar military’s grip on a country that only several years ago looked like it might prosper as a democracy. And it is an urgent signal to the U.S. and its allies to put more economic pressure on Myanmar to return the country to civilian hands and free the leaders, including Suu Kyi, that it is holding.
The nonprofit Human Rights Watch has urged large investors in oil and gas companies doing business in Myanmar to take actions to stop the flow of billions into the hands of the military, which controls most of those industries. Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says his organization would like to see Congress require U.S. energy companies doing business in Myanmar to put their revenue into an escrow account for the people of Myanmar instead of the military until the government is returned to civilians.
That’s a bold and creative idea. And it’s possible. There’s bipartisan support for Suu Kyi and a civilian-led government in Congress. The conviction of Suu Kyi indicates that banning military officials and their families from using property and goods they own in the U.S. or making transactions in U.S. dollars — as the U.S. Treasury Department did in the months after the coup — is not having much of an effect. If the U.S. wants to help the people of Myanmar to have a chance again at life under democratic rule, it’s time to do something more drastic.