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Myanmar Crisis

Suu Kyi's party cornered in Myanmar coup aftermath

With leadership detained, NLD risks crumbling before next election

A Myanmar soldier stands guard in front of a Hindu temple in Yangon on Feb. 2.   © Reuters

YANGON -- In the days following the coup in Myanmar, the National League for Democracy, the country's largest political party, finds itself in a deepening predicament.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the party's leader, remains under house arrest and faces years in prison on a smuggling charge. So she could be essentially shut out of new elections that military leaders have pledged to hold in the near future.

Other NLD officials have also been detained, leaving the party with no obvious leader to contest the takeover of the government. This appears to be how the military leadership likes it.

After the military launched the pre-dawn coup Monday, NLD lawmakers who had gathered in the capital, Naypyitaw, for a session of parliament were initially detained at a housing complex there.

Most were later freed. But Suu Kyi remains in detention in Naypyitaw, according to a NLD spokesperson. Right-hand man President Win Myint has been moved from the official residence to a separate dwelling where he is being detained, the spokesperson said.

NLD branch offices in the city of Mandalay and elsewhere have been raided since Tuesday, with computers and documents seized, according to the party. Senior NLD figure Win Htein was arrested at his daughter's house in Yangon in a midnight operation Thursday, then later taken to Naypyitaw, the party said.

The military looks to be grasping at any justification it can find for detaining NLD leaders. Suu Kyi is accused of illegally importing walkie-talkies, while Win Myint is accused of violating coronavirus rules at a campaign rally. Their detentions have been approved by the courts through Feb. 15.

On Thursday local time, the United Nations Security Council expressed "deep concern" over the situation in Myanmar and called for "the immediate release of all those detained."

U.S. President Joe Biden made a similar demand in a foreign policy speech the same day.

"As I said earlier this week, we will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law and impose consequences on those responsible," he said.

Few expect Suu Kyi to be set free even after the court-sanctioned end date of her house arrest.

"The tactics used by the military are identical to those used by the junta of the past," said Toshihiro Kudo, a professor who studies Southeast Asia at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. "It's difficult to believe that [Suu Kyi] will be granted freedom in the short term."

Aung San Suu Kyi smiles to supporters as she leaves the National League for Democracy party headquarters in Yangon in June 2013. The absence of a clear successor may spell trouble for the party if Suu Kyi remains under house arrest for an extended period.   © Reuters

Suu Kyi took the political stage during the massive pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988, the year of the NLD's founding. In 1989, the junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, citing the State Protection Act.

While she languished at home, the NLD handily won the 1990 election with more than 80% of the contested seats. The junta ignored the results and stayed in power.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest three times, spending a total of about 15 years so detained. Her confinement was extended by a year and a half in 2009 after an American man entered her home in Yangon.

Suu Kyi was finally released in November 2010. A general election had been held just days before to mark the transition to a civilian government. The military has routinely used a variety of tricks to constrain the freedom of a well-regarded figure in order to distance her from the popular will.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the military, said at a meeting this week with a business group that the country will hold free and fair elections within six months after the state of emergency is lifted, according to the junta. The state of emergency was used as the pretext to take power.

But there is no guarantee that either Suu Kyi or the NLD will participate in these elections as before. Suu Kyi faces up to three years in prison if convicted of illegally importing the walkie-talkies. The constitution bars those convicted of crimes from running in general elections.

For the NLD and key members, party registration laws could be amended to block them from running.

Suu Kyi's potent charisma factor also risks hindering the NLD. The 75-year-old is its undisputed leader, with no clear successor. The military appears to be betting that the party will wither while separated from her.

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