Myanmar's Suu Kyi convicted in further blow to democracy

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BANGKOK (AP) — Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of Myanmar who was ousted in a de facto coup this year, was convicted on two charges Monday and handed a four-year sentence that was quickly cut in half — in proceedings widely criticized as a further effort by the country’s military rulers to roll back the democratic gains of recent years.

The verdict — on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions — serves to cement a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Nobel Peace laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest for resisting the Southeast Asian nation’s generals but then agreed to work alongside them when they promised to usher in democratic rule.

The case is only the first in a series brought against the 76-year-old Suu Kyi since her arrest on Feb. 1 — the day the army seized power, claiming massive voting fraud in last year’s election. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won that vote in a landslide, and independent election observers did not detect any major irregularities.

Just as the takeover has been met with fierce resistance, so too was the verdict, including a spirited protest in the central city of Mandalay, where demonstrators chanted slogans and sang songs popularized during pro-democracy protests in 1988.

They also took to social media, which has been an important arena for resistance to the military. Htoo Ko, a medical doctor and popular travel blogger who is also an activist, wrote: “They have expended their maximum effort in carrying out evil. The people will be free only if we win the revolution, so work harder for the revolution.”

The cases against Suu Kyi are widely seen as contrived to discredit her and keep her from running in the next election — and many in the international community decried Monday's verdict as a farce. If found guilty of all the charges she faces, Suu Kyi could be sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. She is being held by the military at an unknown location — and state television reported that she would serve her sentence there.

That sentence was reduced hours after it was handed down in what the report said was an amnesty ordered by the country’s military leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Suu Kyi is widely revered at home for her role in the country’s pro-democracy movement — and was long viewed abroad as an icon of that struggle, epitomized by her 15 years under house arrest.

But since her release in 2010, she has been heavily criticized for the gamble she made: showing deference to the military while ignoring and, at times, even defending rights violations — most notably a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that rights groups have labeled genocide.

While she has disputed allegations that army personnel killed Rohingya civilians, torched houses and raped women and she remains immensely popular at home, that stance has tarnished her reputation abroad.

The incitement charge Suu Kyi faced centered on statements posted on her party’s Facebook page after she and other party leaders were detained by the military. She was accused of spreading false or inflammatory information that could disturb public order. In addition, she faced a charge of violating coronavirus restrictions for her appearance at a campaign event ahead of the elections last year.

Dr. Sasa, spokesperson for the National Unity Government, an opposition group that has declared itself the country’s shadow administration, called the verdict “a shameful day for the rule of law, justice and accountability in Myanmar” and said it represented an effort to “replace our dreams with military dictatorship forever.” He uses only one name.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the proceedings a “sham trial,” while Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said it was just the beginning of a process that “will most likely ensure that Suu Kyi is never allowed to be a free woman again.”

The United States joined others in calling for her release.

“The regime’s continued disregard for the rule of law and its widespread use of violence against the Burmese people underscore the urgency of restoring Burma’s path to democracy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, using a former name for Myanmar.

As is typical, China, a neighbor that has maintained friendly ties with Myanmar’s military leaders, declined to criticize the verdict but urged all parties to work together to continue the democratic transition.

Suu Kyi’s trials are closed to the media and spectators, and her lawyers, who had been a source of information on the proceedings, were served with gag orders in October forbidding them from releasing information. As a result, Monday's verdict was initially relayed to The Associated Press by a legal official who insisted on anonymity for fear of being punished by the authorities.

Defense lawyers are expected to file appeals in the coming days for Suu Kyi and two colleagues who were also convicted Monday, the legal official said. They have argued that Suu Kyi and a co-defendant, former President Win Myint, could not be held responsible for the statements on which the incitement charge was based because they were already in detention.

Win Myint’s sentence was reduced along with Suu Kyi’s.

February’s seizure of power was met by nonviolent nationwide demonstrations, which security forces quashed with deadly force. They have killed about 1,300 civilians, according to a detailed tally compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Peaceful protests have continued, but amid the severe crackdown on them, an armed resistance has also grown, to the point that U.N. experts have warned the country is sliding into civil war. Monday’s verdict could inflame tensions even further.

“It doesn’t matter for the woman who doesn’t need anything. But the fires will burn hotter and hotter for the one who wants everything,” Zenn Khi, a well-known actor, wrote on Facebook, in a reference to Suu Kyi and her military antagonists.

Decisions in other cases against Suu Kyi are expected next week. The cases against her include the alleged unregistered import and use of walkie-talkies by her security guards; a violation of the Official Secrets Act, in which jailed Australian economist Sean Turnell is a co-defendant; and corruption charges.

The military says its takeover was lawful and not a coup because the 2008 constitution —implemented under military rule — allows it to take control in certain emergencies. It argues that the 2020 general election contained widespread irregularities and thus constituted such an emergency.

The state election commission and independent observers have disputed that there was substantial fraud. Critics also assert that the takeover bypassed the legal process for declaring an emergency.