People take part in an anti-coup protest at Hledan junction in Yangon, Myanmar, March 14, 2021 (CNS photo/Reuters).

Myanmar’s military has been using deadly force against demonstrators protesting the February 1 coup, when democratically elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint were removed from office and arrested. The bloodshed reached a new level on March 14, when almost forty protestors were killed in Yangon and martial law was imposed. As of this writing, nearly 150 people have been murdered since the coup, and thousands more have been arrested in cities and townships across the country.

The coup was orchestrated by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has long had a rocky relationship with Suu Kyi and was reportedly worried that she might investigate the sources of a fortune meant to support his plush retirement. He baselessly declared her party’s landslide reelection in November 2020 the result of fraud, named himself acting president, and has since charged her with the crimes of owning illegally imported walkie-talkies and accepting bribes of $600,000 and 11 kilograms of gold (the latter accusation remains unsubstantiated). Suu Kyi, of course, is intimately familiar with Myanmar’s history of military violence and oppression. She was a leading figure of the opposition during a long period of military rule in the late twentieth century, and spent a total of fifteen years under house arrest between 1988 and 2010. When she wasn’t being detained, she traveled the country advocating for peaceful democratic reform. For these efforts, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. When Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the country’s first competitive elections in 2015, she became Myanmar’s “state counsellor,” the country’s de-facto civilian leader (she was barred by the military from officially serving as president). To many Burmese people, “the Lady” (or sometimes “Mother Suu”) is an icon, and their continued devotion to her is evident in the current protests.

Suu Kyi has proved to be a flawed leader, but she remains the most viable alternative to the country’s military dictatorship

But internationally, Suu Kyi’s stature has waned in recent years. When allegations surfaced in 2017 that the military was engaging in genocide against Rohingya Muslims, she not only refused to condemn the violence, but also appeared in person before the International Court of Justice to defend the military’s actions. She asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming that the violence had been brought on by the Rohingya themselves, and that Myanmar’s own military-justice system was capable of dealing with any allegation of atrocities. Some observers have argued that Suu Kyi adopted this position as a pragmatic political move to appease the military, but in fact she has made negative comments about the Rohingya for years, and before the coup her racist position actually helped her gain ground among nationalists who usually voted for the military.

Western governments have strongly condemned the February coup and its leaders. Shortly after the overthrow, President Biden imposed sanctions on top military officials, which he extended to Min Aung Hlaing’s adult children on March 10. Companies inside and outside Myanmar are boycotting military-supported businesses. But China—which shares a 1,300-mile border with Myanmar and has significant economic influence and a strong manufacturing presence—supports the military government and urged a crackdown on the uprising after Chinese factories in Myanmar were targeted by protesters. Nevertheless, the international community can expand sanctions to pressure the military, particularly by targeting financial institutions or industries the military relies on for funding. Suu Kyi has proved to be a flawed leader, both in her human-rights record and her inability to negotiate a lasting power-sharing agreement with the military, but she remains the most viable alternative to the country’s military dictatorship—and a source of inspiration to millions of her fellow citizens seeking a return to democracy.

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the April 2021 issue: View Contents
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