In her first public comments since being arrested, Aung San Suu Kyi said her political party belonged to the people. Photo: AFP

CHIANG MAI – Myanmar’s deposed and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court on Monday, her first public appearance since a February 1 military coup toppled her elected government and set off waves of popular dissent and resistance. 

Although it was only a first 30-minute hearing, the legal process could lead to her eventual imprisonment and the dissolution of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Suu Kyi stands accused by the military of several charges ranging from possession of illegally imported walkie-talkies to violating the 1923 colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

But the reality, most Myanmar observers say, is that the top brass wants to punish the government she led since 2016 and nullify the outcome of the November 2020 election where the NLD scored yet another landslide victory, as it did in 2015 and 1990.

The military’s accusations of electoral fraud are not what independent, international election observers saw when they monitored the poll last year.

With the military now firmly in charge of the country’s central institutions since the coup, the eventual outcome of the court cases against Suu Kyi is not in doubt – she will inevitably be found guilty and banned from politics. That, in turn, could set the stage for new elections rigged in favor of the military and without the participation of the NLD.

Those verdicts, whenever they are handed down, will surely spark more furious unrest in a country that has descended into chaos and anarchy since the military made the fateful decision to seize power on the day a newly elected parliament was scheduled to meet for the first time in Naypyitaw. 

The coup has also restored Myanmar to pariah status internationally, with Western criticism and sanctions heaped on the coup makers.

Protesters hold posters with the image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw, February 28, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

At the same time, coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is coming under fire from within the military — not because of the power grab as such, but for his inability to consolidate it. Internally, he has reportedly been mocked as only being good at making donations to pagodas and for being “the prince of bangs and pots”, a reference to the way people across the country are venting their anger at the coup by banging pots and pans.

The coup was immediately met by massive demonstrations all over Myanmar, with pro-democracy protesters often waving Suu Kyi’s image on banners and signs, and has been followed by a fierce response from the military. More than 800 protesters and bystanders have been killed and about 4,000 people detained since the putsch. And the violence and persecution are far from over.

What began as peaceful protests have morphed into violent clashes between the military, the police and anti-coup activists who in some places have organized their own armed bands. In Kayah state in the east armed partisans overran and burned down a police station on May 23.

According to the Kantarawaddy Times, a local website, at least 15 policemen were killed in the raid and four captured alive. Twenty-six Myanmar army soldiers have reportedly been killed elsewhere in Kayah state over the past few days. The same news source reported that one resistance fighter was killed and five wounded during the clash.

In Mindat in the west, resistance fighters armed with hunting rifles and homemade guns took over the town before the military responded with heavy artillery and fire from helicopters. Elsewhere in Myanmar, bombings are becoming daily occurrences and the targets are military-controlled banks, companies and local governmental offices.

A huge fire raged at a government building in the northern city of Myitkyina in Kachin state on May 23. On the same day, a bomb exploded in front of the municipal office and explosions as well as gunfire could be heard in Sanchaung in the country’s largest city and commercial capital Yangon.

Apart from igniting armed resistance by locally raised and previously unknown forces, the war between ethnic armed groups in Kayin and Kachin states and the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has flared anew.

In Kayin state, more than 20,000 people have had to flee the fighting while the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has overrun a number of army positions and police stations, most recently in Hkamti in northern Sagaing Division on May 22.

Airbases in Meiktila, Magwe and Toungoo have come under rocket attacks in what appears to be ethnic rebels working with urban dissidents.

Rebel soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) manning rifles on a supply route from Laiza, a KIA-controlled stronghold in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state on the border with China. Photo: AFP / Patrick Bodenham

Among those arrested by junta forces are journalists, activists, health workers and teachers who have taken part in protests against the coup. According to a May 23 Reuters report quoting an official of the teachers’ federation who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals, 125,000 school teachers of the country’s total of 430,000 have been suspended.

The number of doctors and nurses who have lost their jobs is not known, but is thought to be considerable. Many educated people, fearing arrests, have managed to leave the country leading to yet another brain drain, similar to those after the first military takeover in 1962 and the crushing of a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

The country could tilt towards further anomie without a circuit breaker. Banks are not functioning and the economy is in a shambles amid countrywide strikes and unrest. There are rising reports of soldiers and police seemingly at random breaking into people’s homes, destroying furniture and stealing whatever they can lay their hands on.

Other reports indicate that soldiers and policemen have been given methamphetamine pills to jack them up before being deployed to crack down on protesters, which could explain their often erratic and wildly violent behavior.

The only statement that came out of the May 24 court hearing was that a defiant Suu Kyi said that the NLD “was established by the people so the party will be there as long as the people are.” It’s impossible to predict how that short utterance from the country’s iconic democratic leader will impact or ignite an already volatile situation on the ground.

What is clear, however, is that she acknowledged her followers are now pitted against the military, an institution she had tried to accommodate and work with while in power.

Myanmar protesters hold a placard condemning Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s February 1, 2021, military coup. Image: Facebook

It’s also clear that whatever sympathy and support the public may have had for the Tatmadaw are long gone as soldiers rampage, kill and loot with increasingly reckless abandon – a point that some say may be forming schisms in the military.

If Min Aung Hlaing is eventually replaced, which is still far from certain, it doesn’t mean his successor would take a more conciliatory approach to the country’s civilian leaders, including Suu Kyi, and her affiliated pro-democracy movement. 

But as long as he remains in place and Suu Kyi is in the dock on trumped-up charges, Myanmar’s people-versus-the military struggle will likely accelerate and spread.