A court in Myanmar today sentenced the country’s ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to four years on charges of inciting public unrest and breaching COVID-19 protocols. She is facing a series of rulings that could keep her locked up for the rest of her life.
Suu Kyi, who was detained in a military coup in February, is facing a total of 11 charges and a maximum imprisonment of 102 years.
Her trials, which the United Nations and foreign governments have described as politically motivated, have been held in closed-door hearings in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital. The junta has barred all five of her lawyers from speaking to the news media, saying that their communications could “destabilize the country.”
Suu Kyi, 76, is a flawed hero for a troubled nation.
She is held up as an almost godlike figure among her supporters in Myanmar, who describe her as a defender of the country’s democracy — a struggle for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize. But her reputation on the international stage was tarnished over her complicity in the military’s mass atrocities against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group.
The guilty verdict is likely to galvanize a protest movement that has spurred thousands of people to take up arms against the army since February, when the generals seized power.
On Sunday morning, a military truck plowed into a group of protesters who were carrying banners bearing her portrait and quotations of hers on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s most populous city, causing fatalities. At night, protesters continued to demonstrate in the streets, and residents banged pots and pans to register their anger.
In the months since the coup, people have gathered in the streets, doctors and nurses have stopped work in protest, and many have refused to pay taxes in a campaign known as the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Despite the threat of arrest, there is still widespread support for the movement. A growing number of soldiers are defecting, teaming up with armed protesters and insurgent groups to launch hit-and-run attacks against the military.
The junta has responded by cracking down — it has killed more than 1,300 people and arrested more than 10,600 others, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a rights organization based in Thailand.
For many of her supporters, Suu Kyi was seen as the only politician who could lead Myanmar toward full democracy.
After a previous coup, in 1962, the military ruled the country for half a century. When Suu Kyi was elected in 2015, she was forced to share power with the army, which appointed 25% of Parliament. In November 2020, she led her party to a landslide election victory, trouncing the military-backed opposition party.
She has not been seen in public or been able to speak to anyone aside from her lawyers since she was detained Feb. 1. Just hours before she and her colleagues from the National League of Democracy Party were to take their seats in Parliament, military officers detained them, accusing them of voter fraud. Suu Kyi has denied the charge.
Rights activists have condemned the charge of incitement, saying that it is used to intimidate critics of the military. It carries a maximum sentence of three years and states that anyone who “publishes or circulates any statement, rumor or report” with “intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public” could be found liable.
The charge of breaching COVID-19 protocols stems from an episode during the 2020 election campaign in which Suu Kyi stood outside, in a face mask and face shield, and waved to supporters passing by in vehicles. She faces a maximum sentence of three years for the charge.
Prosecutors have continued to slap more charges on Suu Kyi as her case proceeded. The verdicts rendered Monday are the first of several that are expected to be announced in the coming months.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.