There was a powerful element of déjà vu about the news from Myanmar over the weekend. To anyone who has paid attention to the country over the past two decades, the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi had fallen foul of the military government and been sentenced to four years in jail (since reportedly reduced to two) was wearily familiar. Isn’t that what always used to happen over there?
Yet despite the superficial similarities, the situation in the former British colony this year is dramatically different from what it was in the past; different, and substantially worse.
Where, for example, is Suu Kyi? Is she already in jail? Nobody knows – just as nobody has a clue where she has been detained in the nine months since her second administration was overthrown in the 1 February coup, when it was on the verge of taking office.
Suu Kyi spent the best part of 20 years under house arrest between 1990 and her eventual release in 2010, and practically the whole time she was at her family home on the edge of a lake in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. The unprecedented secrecy shrouding the conditions of her detention this time around – the fact that even now, with the publication of her sentence, we have no clue whether she is actually in prison or not, let alone where – is one measure of how very different conditions are this time around.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s shocking failure to offer any criticism of the Burmese army’s genocidal attack on the Rohingya in 2017 appalled her supporters in the west, and led to a drastic re-evaluation of the achievement and legacy of the woman seen for many years as a female Gandhi or Mandela.
But in Myanmar, such a re-evaluation never happened: last year her fellow-citizens voted her an even more overwhelming mandate than they had in 2015, despite a record in government that impressed no one. Suu Kyi, dauntless daughter of the independent nation’s founding father, General Aung San, a brilliant political campaigner and stump speaker, can still do no wrong for her people. And the junta’s decision to jail her yesterday on the farcical charge of “sedition”, and the piffling one of breaching Covid restrictions, is a clear indication of how fragile and insecure it appears to feel, despite having an overwhelming advantage in force of arms. For the regime, Suu Kyi, at 76 years old, remains as serious a menace as ever.
Fresh indications of that fragility come every day. Despite killing more than 1,300 protesters since February, the junta is further than ever from securing the peaceable consent of the population it tyrannises. As the news of Suu Kyi’s incarceration emerged, other reports underscored the mountain the junta still has to climb to get even the sort of sullen compliance that prevailed during Suu Kyi’s earlier years in detention.
On Sunday, a flash mob of protesters in Yangon, carrying pro-Suu Kyi banners, was rammed by an army truck that accelerated into them. Soldiers from the truck then attacked the wounded with rifle butts and opened fire on civilians. Five protesters were reported to have died in the incident.
Myanmar military truck appears to ram into peaceful protesters
Reports of the killings sparked new protests around the country. The large-scale protests that met February’s coup d’etat have been beaten down, but they have been replaced by an endless and unpredictable brush fire of resistance that knows no boundaries.
Prior to this year’s demonstrations, the last big political protests in Myanmar were in 2007, when hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks poured through the streets of many cities and towns in what became known as the “Saffron Revolution”. The monks were joined by huge civilian crowds which were rigorously peaceful, even when the army’s patience snapped and they went in with machine guns to scatter the crowds. Suu Kyi’s insistence, dating back to 1989, that the democracy movement refuse to answer violence with violence, prevailed throughout those years.
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No longer. While Suu Kyi remains the focus and figurehead for protesters, the realisation has dawned among the junta’s opponents that her policy, which relied on luring the military to the negotiating table and striking deals with them, had failed in a fundamental way, and likewise the Gandhian approach which underlined it. Instead, countless People’s Defence Forces have sprung up around the country, using guerrilla tactics to keep the military on the back foot.
No target directly or indirectly linked to the military can relax. Grenades are tossed into military-owned companies, dozens of phone masts have been toppled, government ministries and other state facilities come under bomb attacks; meanwhile tea shops refuse to serve soldiers and large numbers refuse to pay electricity bills. Sunday’s killings provoked a return to the pan- and pot-banging protests seen earlier in the year.
Of course, objectively, the junta has little to fear. These grassroots opponents have no hope of bringing the military down. With solid support from both China and Russia, the junta can expect to hang on to power indefinitely, shrugging off the anaemic sanctions so far imposed by the EU and the US. But the incarceration of Suu Kyi shows how far they are from sleeping easy.
Peter Popham is the author of ‘The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma’, ‘The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom’, and ‘Tokyo: the City at the End of the World’