Who is Aung San Suu Kyi? Ousted leader given partial pardon by Myanmar’s military junta

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi? Ousted leader given partial pardon by Myanmar’s military junta

Aung San Suu Kyi’s son has revealed that her life may be at risk, as her serious gum disease has led to her struggling to eat for more than two years in jail now.

Saying he feels powerless and unable to help her, he shared that his 78-year-old mother has not been allowed to see a doctor even though she is vomiting, feeling dizzy, and has a suspected wisdom tooth problem.

Speaking to The Guardian, the son, Kim Aris, explained: “Nobody outside the prison has seen her for a long time. Now, being unable to eat puts her life at risk. Given how many people lose their lives in prison in Burma [now Myanmar], this is of grave concern.”

Insein’s prison officers, who are known for how brutally they treat political prisoners, are understood to have asked for medical care which, to Aris, is a sign of just how serious his mother’s condition is. The military authorities, however, have refused the officers’ request.

The most recent public update about the former international peace icon and Myanmar’s de facto leader was that she was given a partial pardon after being previously toppled from power.

Myanmar’s junta had pardoned the former leader on five legal charges, military-controlled TV has announced, but she is still facing a further 20 years behind bars after being sentenced for multiple charges — including incitement, electoral fraud, and corruption.

Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the military in February 2021, when her democratically elected government was ousted.

In a statement published on military TV, it was announced that five cases had been pardoned as part of an amnesty, but 14 cases remain. It means her 33-year jail term will be reduced by six years.

“Chairman of the state administration council pardons Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced by the relevant courts,” the broadcast said.

The Nobel laureate, 78, who was once hailed as an “outstanding example of the power of the powerless,” was arrested as part of a military coup and has only been seen once since the 2021 coup in images taken in a courtroom in Naypyid. She has appealed against all her sentences.

Very little is known about the proceedings in any of her trials, which cannot be accessed by media or observers as it is a closed court. Her lawyer has also been prevented from speaking to journalists.

The UN Security Council has called for her release, while the cases have been widely criticised by civil rights groups and many Western countries as politically motivated.

A lawyer representing Ms Suu Kyi has previously described the cases as absurd.

But who is Aung San Suu Kyi? And why has her once shining reputation become mired in controversy?

Protesters outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok following the military coup (Getty Images)
Protesters outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok following the military coup (Getty Images)

A beacon of human rights

Aung San Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years under house arrest — between 1989 and 2010 — in a battle to bring democracy to then-military-ruled Myanmar (also known as Burma).

Her struggles transformed her into an international beacon for human rights and a symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Five years after her release, in November 2015, she led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to a landslide victory in the country’s first openly contested election in half-a-century.

Beloved in her homeland as “the Lady” (Daw), Ms Suu Kyi was forbidden from becoming president under Myanmar’s constitution because she has children who are foreign nationals.

However, she was widely accepted as the country’s de facto leader. Her official title was state counsellor and the president, Win Myint, was a close aide.

The Rohingya crisis

Her leadership as state counsellor has been defined by the country’s treatment of its mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

Following the NLD’s 2015 election win, Ms Suu Kyi promised Western allies she would address the plight of the Rohingya, who had borne the brunt of violent clashes with the country’s Buddhist majority.

But in August 2017, Rohingya militants attacked security forces and the military responded by burning hundreds of villages to the ground and carrying out mass killings and gang rapes.

The deadly crackdown forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee the country to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The violence was condemned across the world, with the UN accusing the military of conducting its campaign with “genocidal intent”.

But Ms Suu Kyi responded by insisting that the military was simply exercising “rule of law”, and claimed ignorance over the exodus of refugees.

World leaders who once admired Ms Suu Kyi then decried her failure to acknowledge the atrocities or denounce the military’s actions.

Global institutions and former supporters, including the Dalai Lama, publicly denounced her and many of the accolades she had been awarded were rescinded.

In 2019, Ms Suu Kyi flew to the Hague to face charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice.

She acknowledged the possibility war crimes had been committed but framed the crackdown as a legitimate military operation against terrorists.

Early life and path to politics

Ms Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San.

He was assassinated in 1947, when she was two years old, just before the country gained independence from British colonial rule.

Ms Suu Kyi spent much of her young life overseas, moving to India with her mother — who was appointed Myanmar’s ambassador in Delhi — in 1960, before attending Oxford University to study philosophy, politics, and economics.

There she met her husband, British academic Michael Aris, and the couple had two sons: Alexander and Kim.

After stints in Japan and Bhutan, the family settled in the UK but, in 1998, Ms Suu Kyi returned to her homeland to care for her critically ill mother.

Michael Aris, with their two sons Alexander (L) and Kim (R), at Ms Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 1991 (Reuters)
Michael Aris, with their two sons Alexander (L) and Kim (R), at Ms Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 1991 (Reuters)

When she arrived back, the country’s largest city, Yangon (then Rangoon), was in the midst of a major political upheaval.

Ms Suu Kyi became swept up in a student-led revolution against the military junta that had seized power after her father’s death, with thousands taking to the streets to demand democratic reform.

She swiftly became the new movement’s leader, quoting her father’s dream to “build up a free Burma”.

But the revolution was soon crushed, its leaders killed and jailed, and Ms Suu Kyi was imprisoned in her lakeside family home.

Speaking her name in public could earn her supporters a prison sentence, hence the birth of her moniker: “the Lady”.

When her husband died in 1997, she decided not to run the risk of attending his funeral, fearful she would not be allowed to return.

Final steps to freedom

During a brief release from house arrest in 1998, she attempted to travel outside Yangon to visit supporters and was blocked by the army.

She sat inside her van for several days and nights, despite dehydration in the sweltering heat, and was said to have caught rainwater in an open umbrella.

She survived an assassination attempt in 2003 when pro-military men wielding spikes and rods attacked a convoy she was travelling in. Some of her supporters were killed or badly wounded.

The army again placed her under house arrest, and from behind the gates she gave weekly addresses to supporters — lecturing about human rights and democracy under the watchful eyes of secret police.

In 2010, the military began a series of democratic reforms and Ms Suu Kyi was released before thousands of cheering supporters.

In the West, she was hailed an icon.

Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Myanmar in 2012, calling her an inspiration to people all around the world, including himself.

With the 2015 election win, and her assumption of the role of state counsellor, Ms Suu Kyi pledged to end civil war, boost foreign investment, and reduce the army’s role in politics.

Why was she detained again?

In February 2021, Ms Suu Kyi was detained along with other leaders of her NDL party in early morning raids, as power was handed to military chief Min Aung Hlaing and a state of emergency imposed.

The army said it had carried out the detentions in response to “election fraud”, with the generals making their move hours before parliament had been due to sit for the first time since the NLD’s landslide in Myanmar’s November 8 election.

Phone and internet connections in the capital Naypyidaw were disrupted, and state TV went off air following the action.

The coup follows days of escalating tension between the civilian government and the military in the aftermath of the election.

Ms Suu Kyi’s party won 83 per cent of the vote in only the second election since a military junta agreed to share power in 2011.

In a statement posted on a verified NLD Facebook account, Ms Suu Kyi warned that such army actions would put Myanmar “back under a dictatorship”.

“I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” she reportedly said in the message.

International response

The UK, EU, US, Australia, and Japan are among the nations condemning the military.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “I condemn the coup and unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar.

“The vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released,” he added.

Meanwhile, the US called for an “immediate” reversal of the army’s assumption of power and the detention of democratic leaders.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement: “The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately.”