Sidelining of tarnished icon Aung San Suu Kyi leaves Myanmar's democratic hopes in hands of others

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A Myanmar migrant living in Thailand holds a portrait of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi while she and others hold up their cellphone lights during a night protest in Chiang Mai on April 4 against the military coup in their homeland. (Dene-Hern Chen / AFP/Getty Images)

The international condemnations poured in swiftly over Monday’s sentencing of onetime democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi by a court in military-ruled Myanmar.

But in reality, the 76-year-old Nobel laureate is no longer the prime torchbearer for the country’s democratic aspirations.

Suu Kyi, the civilian leader who was pushed aside in a de facto coup in the Southeast Asian nation this year, was convicted on two charges and given a four-year prison sentence that was quickly reduced to two years of what's believed to be house arrest, analysts said. Myanmar's deposed President Win Myint was also convicted on two charges and given a reduced two-year sentence under house arrest, state-owned media reported.

Western governments and international human rights groups blasted the legal proceedings against Suu Kyi as a sham, and emblematic of the continuing bid by the country’s military rulers to reverse what had been fitful progress toward democracy in recent years — until a military junta again took over in February.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken labeled the conviction unjust, and urged the release of Suu Kyi and other elected officials who are behind bars.

” I call on the regime to end violence, respect the will of the people, and release the unjustly detained,” Blinken said in a statement — a refrain also sounded by the European Union, Britain, the United Nations and others.

Suu Kyi still faces other and more serious charges, some of which could keep her in prison for the rest of her life.

There had been little doubt that military leaders were going to silence Suu Kyi, who was arrested Feb. 1, the same day the military seized power.

The deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, wrote on Twitter that criminal proceedings against the ousted leader were carried out “with clear intent to lock her away for good so she can never again contest military rule.”

The military’s pretext for removing Suu Kyi was that last year’s elections — which her National League for Democracy won handily — were tainted by fraud, although independent election observers had not reported any major irregularities.

Even before the military stepped in, Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, had suffered a fall from grace in terms of her international stature. Released in 2010, she seemingly accepted the generals’ promise to work toward democratic rule.

Suu Kyi remains a revered figure in Myanmar, but international backers were horrified by her obeisance to the military and her public accession to flagrant rights violations carried out by the generals, including the 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. International rights groups labeled the military's actions a genocide.

The tarnishing of Suu Kyi’s international standing, however, was not a factor in her trial. Instead, analysts say, the proceedings were overshadowed by the life-and-death drama playing out each day in the country as civil war rages from border regions to the streets of major cities like Yangon.

“The conversation about democracy and federalism in Myanmar has moved along so far past simply Aung San Suu Kyi and the [National League for Democracy] to include wider ethnic demands and sovereignty and inclusion in the state,” said Hunter Marston, an Australia-based politics scholar focusing on Myanmar.

Suu Kyi is still beloved among Buddhists who call her Daw Suu, or Auntie Suu. But the country is moving on.

Untold thousands of young people in Myanmar are engaging in open revolt, unwilling to accept a compromise with the military junta. For them, the cult of personality long surrounding Suu Kyi is no longer central to their aspirations.

“I want collective leadership over individual leadership,” said a 24-year-old woman from Yangon who spoke on condition of anonymity because of her role in the opposition movement. “We need a federal system where all ethnic groups are involved. I don’t think Daw Suu can represent that kind of government.”

Meanwhile, the government formed in exile — known as the National Unity Government, comprising members of the deposed civilian government and other ethnic leaders — has prioritized greater diversity. Without it, the government can’t implement its goal of building a new nation guided by federalism where different states and ethnic groups have equal say.

While in power, Suu Kyi and her party restricted voting in ethnic areas and even built statues of her late father, Aung San, who was seen as a hero to the Buddhist majority, but not the ethnic groups marginalized after independence from the British.

That matters today because the opposition resisting the junta needs the ethnic groups and their armed rebels more than ever to dislodge the military from power. Buddhists have fled to the border regions and joined ethnic insurgents, the only groups powerful enough to stand up to the military, known as the Tatmadaw.

“Many young people have been disappointed with Suu Kyi for some time,” said David Mathieson, a veteran Myanmar analyst based in neighboring Thailand. “Ethnic armed groups and many ethnic communities have not seen her as ‘their’ leader, and her moral authority internationally is irreparable. This will not be a return to a pre-2010 scenario of Suu Kyi setting Myanmar’s national political mood. The country is dramatically different now.”

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent democracy activist forced into hiding, once admired Suu Kyi, but has spoken out this year about how she grew disillusioned with her after the Rohingya crisis. She now believes Suu Kyi’s outsized influence in the civilian government held back the country’s development. If Myanmar is somehow able to emerge from military rule, she said, it needs fresh young leadership that also represents the ethnic populations Suu Kyi shunned.

Yet Thinzar Shunlei Yi couldn’t completely write off the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and childhood hero.

“As long as Daw Suu recognizes the current sentiment in Myanmar, she can still play a role,” she said.

Special correspondent Kyaw Hsan Hlaing in Bangkok and Times staff writer Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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