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As Courts Sideline Aung San Suu Kyi, Who Will Lead Myanmar’s Democratic Movement?

FILE - Demonstrators hold up placards depicting deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup in the country, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 17, 2021.

A series of recent verdicts by Myanmar’s military could see the ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi jailed for life, in what outside analysts say appears to be a campaign to drive her and her party out of politics permanently.

On December 6, a special court found Suu Kyi guilty of inciting dissent and breaking COVID-19 pandemic rules during last year’s campaign activities. The Zabuthiri Court in Naypyidaw sentenced her to four years in jail, then hours later the military reduced the sentence to two years.

This is the first sentence of a total of 11 criminal charges against the 76-year-old Nobel laureate after the military seized power in the February 1 coup earlier this year. In total, Suu Kyi’s charges carry a maximum of 100 years in jail.

”From this sentence, you can see that the military government has no plan to reconcile with Aung San Suu Kyi, and is determined to part ways from her,” Chen Shangmao, a professor at the Department of Public Affairs at Fo Guang University in Taiwan, told VOA.

In the 2020 election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party had retained power, yet later was accused by the junta of voting fraud. Independent election observers have said the election was mostly free and fair. Since the coup, analysts say the military has been working to prevent her return to power.

“The military hopes to eliminate Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy from Myanmar’s politics all together,” Chen added.

‘Post Suu Kyi era’

The National League for Democracy has been a key player in Myanmar’s civilian politics, but some analysts argue that a new democratic movement consisting of several different groups has matured, and Suu Kyi is no longer the beacon for democracy in the country. However, it’s also unclear who will become her successor.

Shortly after the February 1 coup, Aung San Suu Kyi had written a note to her supporters, calling them not to work for the military junta. The leaderless Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), began as an online campaign, soon spread across the country and has expanded into a wider pro-democracy movement.

The CDM has attracted support from a broad range of professions, led by medical and health care workers. Bankers, lawyers, teachers and engineers across the nation have demanded the military return the elected government to power, refusing to return to work.

Meanwhile, the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government consisting of opponents of Myanmar’s junta, has been gaining recognition internationally.

Formed by representatives from Suu Kyi’s NLD Party, ethnic minority insurgent groups and other minor parties, the NUG is getting substantial support from overseas, said Wang Wen-Yue, an an associate professor at the National Central University in Taiwan.

“Now we are seeing a huge amount of supply to the NUG, from financial aid to military training from different countries. Coupled with the fact that the Southeast Asia Summit in October didn’t invite a representative from the junta, we are seeing the NUG having a certain level of impact on the international stage,” Wang told VOA.

The NUG said last month that it had raised $6.3 million on the opening day of its inaugural bond sale, in an effort to generate funds for its resistance movement against the junta. In October, the European Parliament threw support behind the shadow government, becoming the first international legislative body to officially endorse the NUG.

FILE - This handout photo taken May 24, 2021, and released by Myanmar's Ministry of Information May 26, shows detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and detained president Win Myint (R) during their first court appearance in Naypyidaw.
FILE - This handout photo taken May 24, 2021, and released by Myanmar's Ministry of Information May 26, shows detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and detained president Win Myint (R) during their first court appearance in Naypyidaw.

Chen from Fo Guang University said these efforts show that the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar has entered a “post Suu Kyi era.”

“Myanmar’s democratic movement is going through a generational change. Aung San Suu Kyi and other more senior politicians from NLD prefer to work with the military forces, while the younger generation just want to overthrow their authoritarian rule,” he told VOA. “So I think Suu Kyi’s withdrawal from politics, in this sense, is a good thing for the anti-government movement in Myanmar.”

Sun Yun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, argued that Suu Kyi will be relevant as long as she’s alive.

“Aung San Suu Kyi was jailed or under house arrest before. It did not make her any less a democratic leader that she could be. She still enjoys vast popularity among the Burmese people. As long as she is alive, I doubt that she can be counted out,” she told VOA.

No election, no government

Some experts also expressed doubt about the National Unity Government's approach in fighting for democracy. In September this year, the shadow government announced a “defensive war” and nation-wide revolution against the military junta, a move seen by some analysts as a call to arms against the junta controlling the country.

Announcing the message through Facebook video, Duwa Lashi La, the ethnic Kachin politician who currently serves as the acting president of the NUG, called on Myanmar’s raft of ethnic groups to “immediately attack” the military, and asked the public to refrain from non-essential travel and stock up on basic necessities and foodstuffs.

U.S. officials have engaged with NUG representatives in various meetings, and officials have publicly supported their efforts to peacefully restore Myanmar’s path to democracy. But Washington has not formally recognized the group as a representative of the people of Myanmar.

Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University, told VOA in an earlier interview that governments like the United States are “very reluctant to confer recognition because of NUG's endorsement of 'people's defensive war' and violence.”

Sun Yun from Stimson Center said the NUG is unlikely to gain the wide international recognition it desires without a free and fair election.

“Without proper election, any claim of legitimacy in Myanmar will be vulnerable. The broad civil mobilization and fight for democracy have created many voices, and many claims. Until the country returns to a proper election, I don’t think any of the forces represent the legitimate government of the country,” she told VOA.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Wang Wen-Yue's title.