Have Myanmar’s generals overreached themselves by declaring last November’s general election null and void and arresting Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy, swept the election with an overwhelming majority ? I believe they have.

The story of her life has often been told. The many odds that she has faced. Her ups and downs. She came home from the United Kingdom to nurse her mother. She was elected to lead a popular movement. She never left. An election she swept, but juntas tend to be suspicious of elections, and so they snatched the prize from her party and put her in jail.

An offer was made. She could leave to nurse her husband, a British national. But she wouldn’t be allowed to come back. She stayed. Her husband died. She never saw her sons grow up. Fifteen years of incarceration. Global adulation. The Nobel Prize for Peace as consolation prize. Then came the Rohingya crisis. Why didn’t she speak up for them ? Adulation became condemnation. Withdraw the prize, said her critics. Paint over the streets named in her honour.

She won the November 2020 election. The result: incarceration again. Perhaps her admirers turned critics can now begin to understand that her choices were always limited, her silence on the Rohingya crisis a difficult choice, for she was always on the edge of the precipice and knew it.

Constitutional amendments

It bears repetition that Myanmar’s constitution was specifically amended in 2008, to ensure that 25% of the seats in the Myanmar parliament are reserved for the military. The constitution significantly excluded anyone married to a foreign citizen (or whose children are foreign citizens) from contesting. In 2011, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party chose to boycott the election; she joined the electoral process in 2015 and swept the election.

Although she was constitutionally barred from the office of president, in an internationally brokered accommodation with the junta, where I understand India played a significant role,she accepted the post of state counsellor and became the virtual prime minister. Then came the Rohingya crisis when her silence brought her widespread international condemnation.

The November 2020 elections to both Houses of Parliament and the state legislatures, (excluding seats reserved for the military), saw her party trounce the Union Solidarity and Development Party by a sufficiently large margin to be able to form the government with ease.The military-supported opposition condemned the election process as riddled with irregularities. “Errors of neglect,” said the army as it questioned the Election Commission.

A protest against the military coup in Yangon on February 27. Credit: Stringer/Reuters

As a former Chief Election Commissioner in India, I had been invited to observe a number of overseas elections. Unfortunately Covid-19 prevented me from joining an observer team for this election. The international observers included Asian Network for Free Elections, the Carter Centre, the European Union and International IDEA amongst other reputed bodies. There was criticism of the NLD’s extensive use of state media, and the election commission’s exclusion of the Rohingyas from the voting process.

On balance, the Atlanta-based Carter Centre commended the efforts of Myanmar’s election commission. A coalition of 12 domestic election observers declared the election results credible while also pointing out the weaknesses inherent in the electoral legal framework post- the 2008 constitution.

On February 1, the generals overturned the election in its entirety .Claiming that the November elections had been riddled by fraud, they took over the reins of government, bringing a decade’s worth of democracy to an abrupt end. A one-year Emergency was declared. Fresh elections are promised. In a pre dawn raid on Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, the army claimed to have found seven imported walkie talkie sets and invoked infringement of customs regulations. The police arrested her.

Wide-spread protests

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have thronged the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and other cities ever since day martial law was imposed. While Suu Kyi’s party declared a nation wide strike, the army clamped down on social media networks. They ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew. In turn, thousands began to bang pots and pans with spoons, an act of popular protest that I have witnessed elsewhere too. While the protests are still largely peaceful, the press has reported police firing and some deaths. In an unprecedented move the generals have detained election commission officials, with the purported aim of having the Commission elections admit to electoral fraud.

To inject a personal element here, for the long years that Aung San Suu Kyi was under detention, my wife and I did not visit Myanmar as tourists because of our personal friendship with her. I had known her from our university days in the UK when she was at Oxford and I at London University. My wife knew her well from the time her mother was Burma’s (as it was then called ) ambassador to India. They were school girls together in Delhi and thereafter together at a Delhi college.My late father-in-law father was their valued family doctor, so there was constant visits between both houses. My sister-in-law was a particularly close friend.

A woman in Yangon bangs a tray during a night protest against the recent coup by the Myanmar army. Credit: Reuters

We met after a gap of many years when she finally returned to India in 2012 to receive the Nehru Prize for International Understanding, which had been awarded to her 17 years earlier, in 1995. Long periods of imprisonment and even a spell in jail had prevented any travel. Now she was the Foreign Minister. Our counterpart, Salman Khurshid, gave a banquet in her honour at Hyderabad House.If she had been cool towards India for not doing much to help her plight as country to country business continued apace, her visit would have cleared any lingering doubts of the esteem she was held in by the people she met.

At the banquet our host had thoughtfully invited several of her old friends. We gathered around her before dinner was served, and after it was cleared she was cocooned in a warm atmosphere of friendship. Practically everyone managed a few words with her.We finally visited Myanmar two years later. We waited in Yangon till she returned from the capital Naypyidaw, where parliament was in session.We spent two hours reminiscing in her bungalow, not unlike New Delhi’s houses of similar vintage.

In a corner of the sitting room, facing the lake, stood a piano, her only companion, barring her books, for all those long years when she was deprived of companionship and news in any form.

International condemnation

The overturning of the election has been widely condemned by the international community. US President Joe Biden was among the first to denounce the coup and effectively froze American funding. He called for the release of political leaders (read Aung San Suu Kyi) and her party members who had been detained. The United Nations passed a resolution calling for Suu Kyi s immediate release. The chorus is growing.

Until recently, she was being attacked for her silence on the dreadful plight of the Rohingyas who were brutally forced out of Myanmar. But by arresting her yet again the generals have succeeded in partially restoring the halo that had slipped. Once again the world remembered she was the daughter of the country’s hero General Aung San and that his daughter had already spent a fifth of her life deprived of freedom.

What are her choices now? She had reached an accommodation with the military junta that had enabled six years of freedom and the power to help her people. As in a cruel rendition of the game of snakes and ladders, she has slipped back to starting point.

No one quite knows why she has been detained. The charges make little sense. Inevitably she will be sentenced by a court of law. The question might have arisen in her mind that if detention again was to be her fate, even as she won an internationally accepted election, might it have been preferable to stand up to the generals and retain the world’s respect. which had entailed a lifetimes sacrifice?

Navin B Chawla, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, is the author of Every Vote Counts, the Story of India’s Elections. He is the biographer of Saint Teresa of Kolkata.