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This Time, Rights Groups Might Be Less Willing To Champion Aung San Suu Kyi

Members of the Burmese-American community hold a demonstration outside the Office of the Consulate General of Myanmar in Los Angeles in April.
Members of the Burmese-American community hold a demonstration outside the Office of the Consulate General of Myanmar in Los Angeles in April.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's ousted leader, is facing a familiar prospect: years after her release from house arrest, she looks likely to be heading back into a prolonged detention at the hands of a ruling council of generals.

Suu Kyi was once the darling of the international community. But as her trial on a host of charges widely seen as politically motivated gets underway in the wake of the Feb. 1 coup that toppled her, this time her stint in power and the atrocities that occurred on her watch are likely to dampen any enthusiasm to rally behind her.

In 2010, her dramatic release was worldwide news. She appeared at the gate to her Yangon home as a free woman for the first time in years, dressed in a traditional Burmese jacket as she smiled at well-wishers and promised to continue the fight for democracy in her country. The plight of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been a cause célèbre for Western governments and human rights campaigners, while the international media had treated her on par with Nelson Mandela. Upon Suu Kyi's release, calls of congratulation poured in from around the world.

But much has changed since those heady days.

Two years after gaining her freedom, Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament and by 2015, her National League for Democracy had won a resounding victory in elections that catapulted her to the political center stage. Although Myanmar's constitution, written by the military, prevented her from being president, she nonetheless rose to become the country's de facto leader.

A precipitous fall from grace

Not long after, Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, responded to rebel attacks by carrying out a brutal crackdown on the country's ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a majority Buddhist country. For her part, Suu Kyi was accused of standing by as the army rampaged. More than 730,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. A 2018 independent fact-finding mission told the United Nations that 10,000 Rohingya deaths would be a "conservative estimate."

As the world's attention began to focus on the unfolding horror, Suu Kyi not only pushed back against charges that the Tatmadaw committed genocide, but traveled all the way to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to personally defend the military's actions.

A Rohingya refugee boy shown after a massive fire broke out in March, destroying thousands of shelters and killing at least 15 people at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
K M Asad / LightRocket via Getty Images
A Rohingya refugee boy shown after a massive fire broke out in March, destroying thousands of shelters and killing at least 15 people at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi, who just turned 76 on Saturday, remains popular at home, where her name and image are routinely invoked amid ongoing protests in which authorities have killed some 865 people, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). Abroad, however, Suu Kyi's reputation has been indelibly stained over the Rohingya issue, says Miemie Winn Byrd, an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center who specializes in U.S.-Myanmar relations.

"[No] one has been explicitly making the demand for her release," she wrote in an email to NPR. "Based on this, I would have to assume that her tainted image is one of the key factors."

Following reports of the atrocities, Amnesty International withdrew its highest award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, given to her in 2009, saying Suu Kyi "no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying [defense] of human rights." Other rights groups followed suit. There were even calls for revoking her Nobel.

As a result of all this, Suu Kyi has become "a complicated figure in the human rights community," Carolyn Nash, Amnesty International's Asia advocacy director, tells NPR.

"It certainly diminished her in the eyes of the of the international community ... that's for sure," says Kenton Clymer, a retired history professor at Northern Illinois University who has written several books on U.S. relations with the Southeast Asian country that is also known as Burma.

"She was an icon and up on a pedestal," he said in an interview with NPR. "Then, largely because of her defense of the military's actions and the ruling at the [International Criminal Court at the Hague] ... that lessened her image abroad."

Some even contend that the international community's abandonment of Suu Kyi may have invited the putsch that ousted her. When the West "turned its back" on her, "the military saw the end of her usefulness and the pretense for democracy," Byrd says.

She could get up to 14 years for sedition

More than four months after the coup and Suu Kyi is in the dock. The government says she illegally owned unlicensed two-way radios and violated coronavirus restrictions. She also faces sedition charges – which carry a penalty of up to 14 years in prison — and allegations of corruption and breaching the country's official secrets act.

"This is not a trial. This is a theatrical exercise," says John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

In retrospect, Byrd says, the international community have hurt the cause of democracy in Myanmar by making Suu Kyi the "embodiment" of the movement. By doing so, "they made the process of democratization more fragile," she says.

But she asserts that Suu Kyi "was unfairly blamed" for the Rohingya crisis. Clymer is more circumspect. "The best that you can say about [Suu Kyi] and her actions is that she didn't have any control over the military," he says.

Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon last month.
/ AFP via Getty Images
Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon last month.

What can the U.S. do now?

Following the coup, the U.S. quickly moved to condemn the military crackdown. Within days, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the coup leaders. The Biden administration has also placed export controls on Myanmar, frozen the country's estimated $1 billion in assets in the U.S., and sanctioned some Tatmadaw-owned enterprises.

Clymer says that if Suu Kyi is convicted, "I'm sure there will be strong words of condemnation from the U.S. and others, though of course how effective this will be is in question."

"Beyond that, probably the most useful course would be to persuade China to help out," he says. "China is not 100% in favor of the junta, so perhaps Biden could see what might be done here."

Whatever the outcome for Suu Kyi, Sifton of Human Rights Watch says human rights campaigners are already taking a broader approach to the situation in Myanmar.

"Human rights in Burma is no longer about one person," he says. "It's about the whole panoply of problems since the coup, the fact that democracy was overthrown in the abstract and that massive human rights abuses are going on right now."

Amnesty's Nash emphasizes the 5,000 people who have been detained by the military, saying that the junta's move against Suu Kyi is just one example of "a sustained campaign of suppression" in the country.

Going forward, she says, "It's certainly not just Aung San Suu Kyi, and that's not where I believe the rights community will be focusing."

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