Aung San Suu Kyi charged with election fraud: What's happened in Myanmar since junta coup

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing said fresh elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, extending the military's initial timeline given when it seized power

FP Staff November 17, 2021 17:51:39 IST
Aung San Suu Kyi charged with election fraud: What's happened in Myanmar since junta coup

File image of Myanmar's Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Reuters

On Tuesday, State media reported that Myanmar's junta has charged ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi with committing electoral fraud during the 2020 polls. This is just the latest chapter in the turmoil that has been unfolding in Myanmar since February's coup which sparked nationwide protests and a deadly crackdown on dissent.

Let take a brief look at the latest developments in Myanmar and how things have unfolded in recent months.

Suu Kyi charged

Detained since the putsch, Suu Kyi, 76, faces a raft of charges including illegally importing walkie talkies, sedition and corruption, and faces decades in jail if convicted. The latest charges entail "election fraud and lawless actions", State-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported, without giving details on when court proceedings would begin.

Suu Kyi appeared for the latest hearing in her trial for allegedly importing and possessing illegal walkie talkies on Monday, a source with knowledge of the matter told AFP.

Suu Kyi is already on trial for flouting coronavirus restrictions while campaigning ahead of the election.

A verdict for her trial on breaching COVID-19 regulations is expected in December. She faces three years in jail if found guilty.

Journalists have been barred from attending proceedings at the special court in the military-built capital Naypyidaw, and the junta recently muzzled her legal team from speaking to the media.

Fifteen other officials, including former president Win Myint and the former chairman of the election commission, face the same charge, the report added. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party (NLD) saw its support increase in the 2020 vote compared to the 2015 election, trouncing a military-aligned party.

The junta has threatened to dissolve the NLD and last month jailed Win Htein, a close Suu Kyi aide and high-ranking leader, to 20 years on treason charges.

US journalist freed

In a rare positive development, Danny Fenster, an American journalist imprisoned for the past half-year by Myanmar’s junta, was freed Monday into the custody of Bill Richardson, the former US diplomat who helped secure his freedom.

Fenster is the only foreign journalist to be convicted of a serious crime in Myanmar after the fall of Aung San Suu Kyi's government.

As per The New York Times, Richardson had met with the junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, just two weeks ago — the first prominent Western emissary to visit since the coup. He returned to the country in recent days and was flying back to the United States with Fenster, who had been in prison since May.

During a stopover in Qatar en route home, Fenster told reporters he had been "arrested and held in captivity for no reason" but was physically healthy. "I wasn't starved or beaten," news services quoted him as saying.

It remained unclear Monday what, if anything, had been promised to the junta in exchange for his release.

The United Nations had on Friday condemned the sentencing of Fenster  and urged the authorities to release all journalists who were jailed for practising their profession after the February military coup.

Hindustan Times quoted United Nations commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet as saying that the sentencing of Fenster was emblematic of a wider plight of journalists in Myanmar who have faced constant repression in the wake of the February coup.

"Journalists have been under attack since 1 February, with the military leadership clearly attempting to suppress their attempts to report on the serious human rights violations being perpetrated across Myanmar as well as the extent of opposition to the regime", Bachelet said, according to an official statement.

Women join fight against military, higher education dreams take hit

Women have joined the fight against the military with the announcement of  the Myaung Women Warriors, Myanmar’s first publicly announced all-female fighter group, as per Al Jazeera.

The Myaung Women Warriors is one of hundreds of armed resistance groups, known commonly as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), which have emerged across the country since April, as per the outlet.

"I joined because I want to root out the dogs," 23-year-old schoolteacher Kabya May, using what has become a derogatory term for Myanmar security forces, told the outlet. "The reason I joined a women’s only resistance group is to show that women can do what men are doing."

Four female fighters told the outlet said their goals were: overthrowing the dictatorship, overturning traditional gender norms and ensuring women play an equal role in nation building.

Myanmar’s higher education system, already among the world’s weakest, has been left in shambles, as per another Al Jazeera report.

"When we talk about education, everything has been stuck in Myanmar," said Bawi Za, a student from Chin State who has been unable to travel to the US to attend the master’s programme for which he received a scholarship. "It is kind of hopeless for Myanmar youth and Myanmar students."

Nyein, a longtime public sector worker, beat hundreds of applicants in 2020 for a US government-funded master’s level scholarship and had planned to start classes in August.

She told Al Jazeera that even though she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement on 7 February and left her job, her scholarship was rescinded in March because of her alleged support for the military regime.

"I got refused not because of my shortcomings; I was refused because of political issues. It is really hard for me to understand," said Nyein, who is now jobless and living in hiding due to fear of arrest.

"When the coup happened, everything turned upside down in just a day."

Junta releases hundreds of prisoners, economy in turmoil

Global New Light of Myanmar in October reported that the junta freed hundreds of political prisoners:  647 from Yangon's Insein prison and 80 from a Mandalay prison. A notice in the newspaper said  4,320 more defendants currently before the courts will also be acquitted,

The junta had announced it would free more than 5,600 people arrested for protesting against military rule and that the freed prisoners would need to sign a document pledging not to commit any acts of violence against the country.

Meanwhile, Myanmar's economy has been in turmoil ever since the coup.

Myanmar's currency has lost more than 60 percent of its value since the beginning of September, driving up food and fuel prices in an economy that has tanked since February.

"This will rattle the generals as they are quite obsessed with the kyat rate as a broader barometer of the economy, and therefore a reflection on them," Richard Horsey, a Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group,  told Reuters.

While the military government's investment minister attributed Myanmar's economic troubles to sabotage by opponents of the junta and their overseas backers, a US official chalked it up to political instability and mismanagement.

US state department official said: "Everything we've seen, and we're being told from our folks on the ground, is that there is just sort of gross mismanagement of the economy."

"We have to attribute the dire economic situation to the lack of political stability and all the uncertainty."

In August, the Central Bank of Myanmar tried tethering the kyat 0.8 percent either side of its reference rate against the dollar, but gave up on 10 September as pressure on the exchange rate mounted.

The shortage of dollars became so bad that some money changers pulled down their shutters.

Junta cancels poll results

The junta has cited fraud during the poll as its reason for seizing power and ending Myanmar's democratic interlude. In July, it cancelled the results of the polls, announcing it had uncovered more than 11 million instances of voter irregularities.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing said fresh elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, extending the military's initial timeline given when it seized power.

In a report on the 2020 polls, the Asian Network for Free Elections monitoring group had said the polls results were "by and large, representative of the will of the people".

"The junta is using spurious claims of electoral fraud as a key justification for its coup," International Crisis Group's Myanmar senior advisor Richard Horsey told AFP. "Having failed after much effort to identify more than a handful of people who voted twice, it is now going after NLD leaders," he said.

"But Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD had overwhelming support from voters, so guilty verdicts will convince no one."

The UN Security Council last week expressed its "deep concern" about the unrest in Myanmar and called for an "immediate cessation of violence" and for efforts to ensure that civilians are not harmed.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested since the coup, according to a local monitoring group.

With inputs from agencies

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