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Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi: The Legal Challenges

Demonstrators protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 6, 2021.
Demonstrators protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 6, 2021.

The four-year prison sentence given to ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday on charges of incitement and failing to observe pandemic restrictions is one small shot in a legal offensive intended to deal her and her National League for Democracy party a crippling political blow.

Suu Kyi's supporters and legal experts generally believe the cases against her have been contrived to discredit her and justify the military's seizure of power in February.

Suu Kyi and her co-defendants have been charged under a wide range of laws and have pleaded not guilty to every charge.

Telecommunications law

Suu Kyi is charged with having walkie-talkies that were operated by her security guards without a license. Maximum penalty is one year in prison and a fine. Verdict expected Dec. 13.

Export-import law

Suu Kyi is charged with improperly importing the walkie-talkies. It was the first charge filed after her house was raided when the military seized power on Feb. 1, and was used to initially detain her. Maximum penalty is three years' imprisonment and a fine. Verdict expected Dec. 13.

Coronavirus restrictions

Suu Kyi is charged with two counts of violating coronavirus restrictions during campaigning for last year's election, which her party won overwhelmingly and the military refuses to recognize. The offense falls under the Natural Disaster Management Law. Ousted president Win Myint also is charged under the law. Maximum penalty for each count is three years in prison and a fine. She was found guilty on one count on Monday and sentenced to two years in prison. A verdict on the second count is expected Dec. 14.


Suu Kyi was also found guilty on Monday of incitement, defined as spreading false or inflammatory information that could disturb public order, and sometimes referred to as sedition. Her co-defendants on the incitement charge were ousted President Win Myint and Myo Aung, the former mayor of the capital, Naypyitaw. They were also found guilty. Maximum penalty is two years in prison and a fine. All three received the maximum sentence of two years.

Official Secrets Law

The Official Secrets Law, also known as the State Secrets Law, is a legacy of the British colonial era that criminalizes the possession, collection, recording, publishing or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” Suu Kyi's co-defendants in the case are three former members of her Cabinet and Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who served as her adviser. The details of the alleged offense have not been made public, though state television has said Turnell had access to “secret state financial information” and tried to flee the country. Maximum penalty is 14 years in prison. Verdict expected next year.

Anti-corruption law

A special court is hearing four corruption cases against Suu Kyi. She faces two charges covering her own actions, and two in which she allegedly conspired with other defendants to carry out corruption, which involves abuse of authority. Testimony included an allegation by a former political ally of Suu Kyi that he handed her a bribe of $600,000 and seven gold bars in 2017-18. Suu Kyi dismissed his allegations as “absurd.”

Suu Kyi has also been charged with diverting money meant as charitable donations to build a residence, and misusing her position to obtain rental properties at lower-than-market prices for a charitable foundation named after her mother that she chaired. The Anti-Corruption Commission has alleged such actions deprived the state of revenue it would otherwise have earned.

Maximum penalty for each offense is 15 years in prison and a fine. No date yet set for verdict.

A fifth corruption charge, also involving the rental of real estate, has not yet gone to trial. The authorities announced last week they have filed a sixth charge against her and Win Myint in connection with granting permits to rent and buy a helicopter.

Election-related laws

Myanmar's election commission announced it is prosecuting Suu Kyi and 15 other political figures for alleged fraud in last November's general election. The action by the Union Election Commission could result in Suu Kyi's party being dissolved and unable to participate in a new election the military has promised will take place within two years of its takeover.

The commission said Suu Kyi, former President Win Myint, other leading figures from her party and the commission's former chairman were “involved in electoral processes, election fraud and lawless actions” related to the polls. An election commissioner announced that Suu Kyi and two colleagues are accused of violating the constitution and several election laws.