Why Did Myanmar’s Military Reduce Aung San Suu Kyi’s Prison Sentence?

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why Did Myanmar’s Military Reduce Aung San Suu Kyi’s Prison Sentence?

The move is part of a strategy aimed at normalizing the junta’s relations with the outside world – or at least with ASEAN.

Why Did Myanmar’s Military Reduce Aung San Suu Kyi’s Prison Sentence?
Credit: Depositphotos

Yesterday, Myanmar’s military-led government announced that it had reduced the prison sentence of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi to coincide with the beginning of Buddhist Lent. As The Associated Press reported, junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing granted the clemency order to reduce the sentences in five cases against Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pardons came as a supplement to Monday’s announcement that the military administration is extending its state of emergency for another six months. The extension, the fourth since the coup, will further delay a stage-managed election that would pave the way to a return to a form of civilianized military rule, reflecting the widespread resistance to military rule and junta’s lack of effective control over much of the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been in custody since the morning of February 1, 2021, when the military overthrew her government and seized power, terminating the graduated process of political and economic reform over which it had presided since the early 2010s. Since then she has been charged with an array of mostly extremely far-fetched criminal charges, including sedition, corruption, violating coronavirus restrictions, and illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, among others.

What motivated the decision to reduce Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence, and why now? The first thing to note is that the pardon only quashed five of the 19 charges of which Aung San Suu Kyi has been convicted. The 78-year-old must still serve a total of 27 years imprisonment.

Still, the choice to include the totemic leader in the amnesties, which also included a total of 7,749 prisoners, is obviously being undertaken with some purpose in mind. Events over the past few weeks certainly suggest a purposeful thrust to junta policy.

On July 9, the military administration permitted visiting Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in prison, the first foreign visitor to do so since the coup. Don later old fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders that she was in good health and conveyed her willingness to engage in talks to resolve Myanmar’s conflict. Meanwhile, a junta-friendly media outlet claimed that Aung San Suu Kyi had “confirmed in the meeting that she neither recognizes nor supports” the National Unity Government, which is coordinating the resistance to military rule, and the People’s Defense Forces with which it is loosely aligned. Then, late last week the military moved Aung San Suu Kyi out of solitary confinement to a less restrictive form of imprisonment in a government building in Naypyidaw

Taken together, the wheeling of Aung San Suu Kyi back to the forefront of international media attention in partially rehabilitated state suggests an attempt to leverage her totemic international image for political gain – at a time when the military is struggling to quell the resistance to its rule.

“Cynics, the ignorant, the gullible, and various vested interests in military rule in Myanmar will loudly exclaim this news as a positive development signifying real change,” the economist Sean Turnell, a former economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi who was arrested after the coup and spent 21 months in prison in Myanmar, wrote yesterday. “It is not. Neither Daw Suu, President Win Myint, nor any of the other political prisoners being ill-treated in Myanmar’s awful jails should be there at all.”

Writing on Twitter yesterday, Scot Marciel, the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, described the partial pardon as “a transparent tactical ploy,” pointing out that any meaningful concession would involve at the very least an immediate cessation of violence. Most serving Western officials, one would hope, would likely see things the same way, having supported the military-led reform process during the 2010s, in large part because the military managed to gain Aung San Suu Kyi’s support for it, only to see all of the effort and support ruined by the 2021 coup.

But as former British diplomat Derek Tonkin noted on Twitter, the gesture may not be intended only for Western consumption. “The main purpose of this charade though is to curry favor with regional neighbors and to be readmitted to the counsels of ASEAN,” he wrote. “Thus protected, they can then sit out Western sanctions.”

Myanmar’s junta has been excluded from high-level meetings since late 2021, but some ASEAN member states, including Thailand, have been skeptical of this approach and have pushed for heightened engagement with the Tatmadaw. This, of course, was the motivation for the Thai foreign minister’s trip to Naypyidaw last month, part of a separate diplomatic process that the lame-duck Thai government has initiated since December, which seeks, with the support of more accommodating ASEAN member states, to normalize relations with Naypyidaw and resolve the crisis (or attempt to) on that basis.

This suggests that the main audience for the partial pardon is not in Washington, Brussels, London, and Canberra, but rather in Bangkok, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and Vientiane.