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The Significance Of Aung San Suu Kyi's Detainment By Myanmar Military

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Myanmar's military staged a coup today and detained the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. It is the latest turbulent turn in that country and a return to detention for Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was put under house arrest after the military refused to accept the results of the previous year's election that saw her party win an outright majority. She later became the country's de facto leader after the military decided to loosen its grip on power in 2011. And while she remains popular within the country, internationally, her reputation has suffered. Joining us now for more is Laurel Miller, director of the Asia Program for the International Crisis Group.

Welcome.

LAUREL MILLER: Thank you.

CHANG: So - you know, Myanmar had been on a path towards democracy. What exactly led to this military coup and this detention for Suu Kyi?

MILLER: Well, first, I think it's important to recognize that Myanmar was still evolving as a democracy. And I think we have to say it was a partial democracy in which the military already had an enormous share of power in the country. So I think this makes your question even a more pointed one in which we have to wonder, why was the extent of control that the military already had over Myanmar not enough?

I think we have to look to a couple of factors - one, the November 2020 election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's party won an overwhelming victory, was a pretty stinging and perhaps humiliating defeat for the military. And also, there seems to have been perhaps a personal factor here with animosity between Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander in chief who is scheduled to end his term in the middle of this year and perhaps thought that he would have some kind of landing pad in politics.

CHANG: Can you talk a little bit about Suu Kyi's history as a public figure in Myanmar and what led to her initial detention?

MILLER: Well, her initial detention was sparked by the first time that her political party won an overwhelming electoral victory. And that was in elections that were held in 1990. And that result was then nullified by the military, and she was put into house arrest for almost 15 years out of the period between 1989 and 2010. Then, after the transition towards democracy began about a decade ago, her party then won a landslide victory in the next elections that were held. These are huge victories that demonstrated her personal popularity aside from her political party's popularity.

CHANG: Well, internationally, Suu Kyi has come under very heavy criticism for what has been happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Can you talk about why so much of the international community lays the blame at her feet?

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, there is an enormous distinction between her enduring popularity at home and the demolishment of her reputation internationally and in the West in particular as a result of how she has handled the Rohingya issue. I think you have to see that the expectations of how she would handle that issue were not matched by the reality of her personal perspectives towards the Rohingya, who are Muslims, and about whom she has said really - you know, disparaging is an understatement - things, the kind of things that she has said against them.

But it is true that given the shared power between the military and civilian authorities in Myanmar, she has had to be very careful to respect the military privileges and prerogatives, to not antagonize the military. That has played a part, no doubt, in how she's handled the Rohingya issue. But it's also the case that she has shown no personal inclination to handle the issue differently.

CHANG: So she has not expressed any regret for how she has handled this issue. She has not expressed any regret for defending the military.

MILLER: To the contrary - at the end of 2019, she personally traveled to The Hague to appear before the International Court of Justice to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide. She didn't have to take that step. And this had a devastatingly dramatic effect on her international reputation. But it only enhanced her popularity at home because this fit with a nationalist line that is shared by both her political party and the Myanmar military.

CHANG: Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group, thank you very much for your time today.

MILLER: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.