BANGKOK (Associated Press) – A court in military-ruled Myanmar found former leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of corruption and sentenced her to five years in prison on Wednesday, the first of several corruption cases against her.
Suu Kyi, who was ousted by the military last year, has denied allegations that she accepted gold and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a senior political colleague.
Her supporters and independent legal experts consider her prosecution an unfair move to discredit Suu Kyi and legitimize the military’s power grab while preventing the 76-year-old elected leader from returning to an active role in politics.
Daughter of Aung San, Myanmar’s founding father, Suu Kyi became a public figure in 1988 during a failed uprising against a former military government when she helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD). She spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest for leading a peaceful struggle for democracy that earned her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. When the military allowed elections in 2015, her party won a landslide victory and she became the de facto head of state. Her party won a larger majority in the 2020 elections.
Suu Kyi is widely respected at home for her role in the country’s pro-democracy movement – and has long been seen abroad as a symbol of this struggle, exemplified by her years under house arrest.
But it has also come under fire for showing deference to the military while ignoring, and at times, defending rights abuses – most notably the 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that rights groups called genocide. Although it has dismissed allegations that military personnel killed Rohingya civilians, set fire to homes and raped women, and remains very popular at home, this stance has tarnished its reputation abroad.
She has already been sentenced to six years in prison in other cases and faces 10 other corruption charges. The maximum penalty under the Anti-Corruption Law is 15 years in prison and a fine. Convictions in other cases can result in sentences of more than 100 years in total.
“These accusations will have credibility only in the eyes of the junta courts (and supporters of the army),” said Mo Thuzar, a fellow at the Yusuf Ishaq Institute, a center for Southeast Asian studies in Singapore. “Even if there are any legitimate concerns or complaints about corruption by any member of an elected government, a coup and military rule in place is certainly not the way to pursue such concerns.”
News of Wednesday’s ruling came from a legal official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release such information. Suu Kyi’s trial in the capital, Naypyitaw, was closed to the media, diplomats and onlookers, and her lawyers were also prevented from speaking to the press.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy scored a landslide victory in the 2020 general election, but lawmakers were not allowed to take their seats when the military seized power on February 1, 2021, arresting Suu Kyi and many of her senior colleagues in her party and government. . The military claimed it acted because of widespread electoral fraud, but independent election observers found no major irregularities.
The takeover was met with large, nonviolent protests across the country, which security forces have suppressed with lethal force that has so far killed nearly 1,800 civilians, according to a monitoring group, the Association to Aid Political Prisoners.
As repression escalated, armed resistance against the military government grew, and some United Nations experts now describe the country as in a state of civil war.
Suu Kyi has not been seen and has not been allowed to speak publicly since she was taken into custody and is being held in an undisclosed location. However, at the last hearing in the case last week, she appeared in good health and asked her supporters to “remain united,” said a legal official familiar with the proceedings who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to release the information.
In previous cases, Suu Kyi was sentenced to six years in prison for illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions and sowing discord.
In the case that was sentenced on Wednesday, she is accused of receiving $600,000 and seven gold bars in 2017-18 from Pheu Min Thein, a former prime minister in Yangon, the country’s largest city and a prominent member of her political party. Her lawyers said, before the gag orders were issued against them late last year, that she had rejected all of his testimony against her, calling it “ridiculous.”
The other nine cases currently being considered under the anti-corruption law include several related to the purchase and lease of a helicopter by one of its former cabinet ministers. Violation of the law is punishable by a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and a fine for each crime.
Suu Kyi has also been accused of diverting money intended for charitable donations to build a residence, and misusing her position to obtain rental properties at below-market rates to a foundation bearing her mother’s name. The state’s Anti-Corruption Commission has declared that many of its alleged actions have deprived the state of revenue it would otherwise have earned.
Another corruption charge, which alleged that she accepted a bribe, has yet to be prosecuted.
Suu Kyi is also on trial for violating the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, and for alleged election fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of three years.
“Gone are Aung San Suu Kyi’s days as a free woman. Myanmar’s military junta and the country’s kangaroo courts are making steady strides in removing Aung San Suu Kyi from what may ultimately be the equivalent of a punishment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. for life, given her advanced age.” “Destroying Myanmar’s People’s Democracy also means getting rid of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the junta leaves nothing to chance.”