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(File pix) Rohingya Muslims walking behind barbed wire fences, stranded between Myanmar and Bangladesh, in Taung Pyo, Myanmar, in July. NYT Photo
(File pix) Rohingya Muslims walking behind barbed wire fences, stranded between Myanmar and Bangladesh, in Taung Pyo, Myanmar, in July. NYT Photo

OVER a span of a month, a pro-military newspaper columnist, Ngar Min Swe wrote 10 brief Facebook posts accusing Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi of taking bribes and dividing the country. In one post, without naming her, he suggested that she was a ‘power-mad prostitute’.

After the police brought charges of sedition, a judge found him guilty and sentenced him this month to seven years in prison.

Suu Kyi’s government could have kept the case from reaching court. But for the Nobel Peace laureate and onetime democracy icon, suppressing criticism has become a hallmark of her leadership.

Much of the world had high hopes for Myanmar two and a half years ago, when Suu Kyi came to power. So much has changed.

Once a symbol of resistance to military rule, Suu Kyi is known today as an enabler of ethnic cleansing and a foe of press freedom.

Hopes that she would use her party’s majority in parliament to encourage badly needed economic growth and abolish oppressive laws have faded.

Now, about halfway through Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party’s five -year term in office, Myanmar is in danger of again becoming a pariah state, as it was under the rule of the generals who once kept her under house arrest.

“Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast,” concluded a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Since August, Western powers and international organisations have taken significant steps to punish Myanmar for its military’s use of rape, arson and murder to drive more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country.

The United States imposed targeted sanctions, a UN mission called for top generals to face genocide charges and judges of the International Criminal Court ruled that they have the authority to investigate the matter.

Myanmar is also under pressure to free two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were sentenced this month to seven years in prison after reporting on killings of Rohingya.

Suu Kyi, 73, who spent 15 years under house arrest during military rule, emerged from isolation as a hero, across Myanmar and abroad. Her party swept elections in 2015 and took office the following year. It now controls both the parliament and the presidency.

But she is hamstrung by a military-drafted constitution that divides power between the generals and her quasi-civilian government.

It also bars her from the presidency, though she found a workaround by choosing Win Myint, a longtime ally, to serve as president and report to her.

She gave herself the title of state counselor and also named herself foreign minister. In those roles, she has become known for stubbornness and an imperious style.

The constitution gives autonomy to the army’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He appoints three cabinet ministers, who oversee the country’s security forces, and a quarter of parliament’s members, enough to block any constitutional amendment.

Some former supporters worry about Suu Kyi’s closeness to the military, known as the Tatmadaw.

During a recent appearance in Singapore, she said her relations with the military were not bad.

The three generals in the cabinet, she volunteered, were “rather sweet”.

“Suu Kyi has covered for the military, and thereby condemned the whole country to vilification, all due to her stubborn certainty that she has all the answers, when it’s clear she has few answers or ideas and almost no empathy,” said David Mathieson, an independent political analyst based in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

Suu Kyi rarely grants interviews to the news media. Her spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not answer repeated calls from The New York Times.

Her dwindling number of defenders have argued that the military’s outsize power has left her with few options. But with her control of parliament and the presidency, Suu Kyi could enact legislation on a wide array of social issues that lie outside the Tatmadaw’s jurisdiction.

At a forum in Vietnam this month, Suu Kyi said the reporters had been sentenced for breaking the law, not for journalism. “If anybody feels there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out,” she said.

When they were arrested, the journalists were reporting on a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, whose mass grave they discovered.

The victims were just a few of the countless Rohingya killed in the western state of Rakhine in the Tatmadaw’s campaign of violence, meant to drive them across the border into Bangladesh.

The Rohingya have long been denied even basic rights in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country where most people regard them as having migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though many have been in the country for generations. In its report last month calling for Min Aung Hlaing and other commanders to be tried for genocide, a UN mission singled out Suu Kyi for not using her position as the de facto head of government, or her moral authority in Myanmar, to try to stop the atrocities.

Instead, the report said, officials in her government spread false narratives, denied the military had done anything wrong, oversaw the destruction of evidence and blocked independent investigations, including that of the UN mission itself.

“Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes”, concluded the 444-page report, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept 18. NYT

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