The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Aung San Suu Kyi, arrested Myanmar leader, went from Nobel Peace Prize to pariah

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, detaining Aung San Suu Kyi, elected ministers and others in a predawn raid. (Video: The Washington Post)

When Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the Norwegian Nobel Committee dubbed her struggle against the country’s military junta “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.”

Even now, after her reputation has been tarnished by allegations that as Myanmar’s leader she turned a blind eye to ethnic cleansing and genocide, there are few who doubt Suu Kyi’s bravery. Many, however, would question her wisdom.

The daughter of a revered independence figure, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest shortly after returning to Myanmar in 1988. Rather than relent or retreat, she stood her ground. She suffered 15 years of house arrest, becoming a global symbol for democracy.

Suu Kyi, who had since 2016 been Myanmar’s top civilian leader, was arrested Monday as part of a military coup. But almost three decades after her Nobel Peace Prize win, there is little global support for her after her journey from political prisoner to pariah politician.

Some former allies suggested that Suu Kyi, now 75 years old, bore some responsibility for Myanmar’s failed democratic experience and recent violence against the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic minority that lives in western Myanmar.

In a statement calling for her release, former governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico said Suu Kyi was “complicit in the atrocities conducted by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities” and should step aside from politics if released.

“Suu Kyi was an icon before and after her release,” said Laetitia van den Assum, a retired Dutch diplomat, but her reputation had been damaged since 2016 “largely because she chose to ignore the plight of the Rohingya.”

Exile and house arrest

Suu Kyi was born June 19, 1945, at the tail end of World War II. Her father, Aung San, was a political leader who helped Myanmar, also known as Burma, chart its independence from Britain. Aung San was assassinated in 1947, less than a year before the country’s independence.

Myanmar’s powerful military, known as “Tatmadaw,” dominated the initial attempts at democracy in the country and, after a military coup in 1962, a military junta was installed that would last for decades.

Suu Kyi’s mother was a diplomat and the family spent much of her childhood outside of the country. Suu Kyi was educated in India and in England, where she studied at Oxford University and met her future husband, British historian Michael Aris.

It wasn’t until she was 43 years old in 1988, when she returned to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother, that Suu Kyi became a political force in the country, which was in the midst of the bloody pro-democracy 8888 Uprising.

“Our purpose is to show that the entire people entertain the keenest desire for a multiparty democratic system of government,” she said in one speech.

Suu Kyi formed the National League for Democracy and won a landslide election in 1990, but the military refused to cede power. Instead, she was kept under house arrest at huge personal cost.

She last saw her husband in 1995. He was subsequently refused permission to visit, and died in 1999 from cancer. The couple’s two sons were only able to resume regular visits after she was released.

From activist to leader

As Myanmar finally moved toward democracy in 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Her international fame had not diminished: Just a year after her release, a laudatory biopic from French director Luc Besson appeared in theaters.

In the United States, her cause attracted bipartisan support, with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a key champion. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012, and when President Barack Obama visited Yangon later that year, he said she was “an icon of democracy who has inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world.”

Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s parliament in 2012. In 2015, her party won a majority. Though banned from holding the presidency under a junta-drafted 2008 constitution, Suu Kyi was given the formal title of state counselor.

International criticism during this period was limited, though there were some rumbles at home. Her former deputy and fellow political prisoner Win Tin told The Washington Post in 2013 that she had been too accommodating of the Tatmadaw.

“She thinks she can persuade all the military leaders to become her friends and come to her side,” Win Tin said.

A tainted reputation

It was Suu Kyi’s defense of Myanmar’s military during a campaign that saw more than a million Rohingya driven from their homes in 2017 that really changed the perception of her. U.N. investigators later said that Myanmar’s military operation against the Rohingya had “genocidal intent.”

But Suu Kyi didn’t just seem to condone the military actions: She publicly defended them. In 2019, she became the first head of state to answer questions at the International Court of Justice, where she refused to even say the word “Rohingya,” repeating military claims of terrorist interlopers.

The actions against the Rohingya led many of her supporters to drop her. Richardson resigned from an international panel set up by Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya, warning of a “whitewash.” Her former biographer said she should resign.

“What happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?” former Obama foreign policy official Ben Rhodes wrote in a lengthy essay for the Atlantic in 2019.

The international outrage did little to dent her domestic appeal, however, and this past November her party won an overwhelming 396 out of 476 seats in Myanmar’s parliament. Ironically, however, it appears that her popularity was what caused the military to arrest her and accuse her party of electoral fraud.

Van den Assum said there was little doubt that Suu Kyi had won the election and that any international response would need to consider that, despite her damaged reputation. “Her landslide victory reflects the will of Myanmar’s people.”

“Ignoring that would make the situation worse,” she added.