A day after Myanmar’s military pulled off a well-choreographed coup, the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, finds herself right back where she was just over a decade ago – under house arrest.
But this time, her standoff with the military comes after she has sorely disappointed many once-staunch supporters in the international community by cozying up to the country’s generals while in power. Leaders in the West are denouncing her detention, of course, but they no longer view the Nobel laureate as a paragon of democratic leadership.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won last November’s elections by a landslide, catching the generals by surprise. They immediately cried voter fraud, an allegation the country’s election commission has dismissed, and proved Monday who really controls the country, detaining Suu Kyi and other top leaders under the cover of darkness, just hours before a new session of Parliament was set to convene.
With flights grounded and communications largely cut, Myanmar plunged back into isolation and darkness, ending 10 years of new freedoms and quasi-civilian rule that the Obama administration held up as a beacon of nascent democracy. The military-owned Myawaddy TV said the country would be under a one-year state of emergency.
Now, it’s not clear who can lead the country out of the wilderness, with Suu Kyi’s reputation abroad badly tarnished.
“I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi has been an accomplice with the military,” said veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson. “I hope she realizes that her compact with the devil has boomeranged against her, and that she will now take the right stand on behalf of democracy, and become a true advocate for human rights. But if she doesn’t step aside”, he said, “I think the NLD needs to find new leaders.”
Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero and father of the nation, spent almost 15 years under house arrest before her release in 2010. Her tough stand against the junta turned her into a symbol of peaceful resistance against oppressors and won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
During her years of confinement, a parade of foreign diplomats, human rights advocates and Nobel laureates streamed into her lakeside villa, demanding the hardline military free the elegant woman known as “The Lady,” who often wears flowers in her hair.
But since her release and return to politics, Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized for the political gamble she made: showing deference to the military while ignoring and, at times, even defending atrocities, most notably a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that the United States and others have labeled genocide.
When she disputed allegations at the U.N. International Court of Justice at The Hague just over a year ago that army personnel killed Rohingya civilians, torched houses and raped women, fellow Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams saw it as a betrayal.
“Beyond rhetoric during election campaigns, what does she really believe in? What does democracy mean to her?” asked Williams, who was honored in 1997 for her work to ban landmines.
Suu Kyi called such criticism unfair, insisting that she had never considered herself a human rights icon, and that that title had been thrust upon her. She had always been, she argued, a politician.
While she has remained immensely popular at home, that compromise has lost her supporters abroad and raises the question of if and how she might lead the country out of the latest crisis.
So far, she has called for civil disobedience to resist the coup but it’s not clear how the Myanmar people will react and the streets of Yangon have been quiet. In 1988 and 2007, people took to the streets in force to protest dictatorship.
It’s also not clear the generals will ever let her return to power.
“There is little future for her I believe in this point in time, and, after all, I do think that is what the military want most,” said Larry Jagan, an independent analyst. “They do not trust her, they do not like her, and they do not want her to be part of the country’s future.”
Still, others say her popularity at home means any democratic transition will have to go through her.
“Suu Kyi will be 76 or 77 when the next election is held. She will be weakened but will remain No. 1 as long as she is alive,” said Robert Taylor, a prominent scholar of Myanmar’s political history. “The military will give her a chance if she gets a majority, but they are hoping she will not.”