Myanmar Regime Persists With Long-Discredited Narrative of ‘Suu Kyi the Traitor’

By The Irrawaddy 24 December 2021

From the day Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered politics in 1988, Myanmar’s military viewed her as an enemy who threatened their grip on power. As her popularity soared among opponents of its rule, the military began using every trick in the book to get rid of her. Its smear campaign included portraying her as a national traitor due to her marriage to a Briton despite being the daughter of national hero General Aung San, who led the country’s independence struggle, and as an untrustworthy figure who was too close to the West.

An editorial in the Dec. 16 issue of the military’s mouthpiece Myawady Daily bears testimony to the fact that the military’s stance has not changed over the past three decades.

The editorial begins by describing the British colonialists’ repressive rule in Myanmar, and their provision of arms to the assassins of Gen. Aung San and his fellow martyrs, going on to say that it was British rule that led to the “multicolored insurgencies” or internal conflicts in Myanmar. What’s more heartbreaking, it argues, is that the daughter of the independence hero who fought the colonialists ended up marrying a Briton, thereby robbing Myanmar of the progeny of its national hero.

It is an old narrative, promoted since 1988 by successive power-hungry military leaders including Senior General Saw Maung, Senior General Than Shwe and military spy chief General Khin Nyunt to drive a wedge between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar people.

Under the rule of Snr-Gen Saw Maung, pro-military magazine Myat Khin Thit featured a cartoon in which two men appear with a photo of Gen. Aung San in the background. One says, “If the general were still alive, he would be sad to have a foreign son-in-law.” To which the other replies, “Yes, he’ll never know about it [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s marriage] as he’s gone now.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was just 43 when the military began trying to exploit her marriage to British national Michael Aris to discredit her; it continues to do so to this day, more than 20 years after her husband’s death, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having reached the age of 76.

This undated photo released 05 July 2003 by the official press New Light of Myanmar website shows pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) getting set to have a “family dinner” with Myanmar’s ruler, Senior General Than Shwe (2nd L), as members of the ruling junta’s State Peace and Development Council meet with leaders of the opposition National League for Democracy. Myanmar’s junta launched vitriolic new attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi and Yangon’s diplomatic community, 06 July 2003, in a clear indication it will not back down in the row over her detention. The pro-democracy leader has been in detention since 30 May. Others pictured are unidentified. AFP PHOTO/NEW LIGHT OF MYANMAR/HO

In August 1988, as she made her first-ever public speech to a mass rally at the western gate of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that although she was married to a foreigner and had spent most of her life abroad, those facts would never lessen the love and devotion she feels for her country.

Nonetheless, the military dictators used the marriage as an excuse to exclude Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar’s politics. When Myanmar held a general election in 1990—the first since the 1962 coup—she registered as a Lower House candidate. However, the National Unity Party, the successor to military dictator Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party, filed a complaint with the electoral body over her candidacy, citing electoral laws that ban anyone with allegiance to, or entitlement to privileges from, a foreign power. She was barred from the poll.

At press conferences, military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt often said military leaders viewed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a sister. On the contrary, articles, songs, cartoons, films and theatrical performances that were highly defamatory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were published or aired almost daily in state-run media under the previous military regimes—the State Law and Order Restoration Council and its successor, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing meet in Naypyitaw in 2016 after the NLD won the general election of 2015. / The Irrawaddy

“Wife of kalar” (a racial slur used for foreigners), “traitor to the Burmese people and Buddhism,” and “traitor Suu Kyi” are just some of the many offensive epithets the military has used against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in its propaganda campaign.

While Than Shwe’s regime was conducting its smear campaign through various media, it also placed her under house arrest three times for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010. It is widely believed that he orchestrated the Depayin Massacre, a violent attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade by government-backed thugs in Sagaing Region’s Depayin (or Tabayin) in May 2003 in which scores of her supporters were killed.

In his book “My Life Experience” published in 2015, Khin Nyunt, who served as Secretary-1 of the SPDC at the time of the massacre, writes: “Aung San Suu Kyi was campaigning in a long convoy from place to place, which was a concern for our government. When the convoy of Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Monywa from Mandalay, the SPDC chairman [U Than Shwe] summoned me and four or five other senior leaders and told us to stop the convoy by all means.”

Out of xenophobia and in order to bar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, Than Shwe included a provision, the infamous Article 59 (f), in the constitution he designed and which was adopted in 2008. The article bars anyone from becoming president if their spouse, either of their parents or any of their children or their children’s spouses are citizens of a foreign country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was thus barred from the presidency despite leading her National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide electoral victory in 2015.

While the NLD was in office between 2015 and 2020, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, a radical nationalist group known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha that had emerged under U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, often accused the party of failing to protect the Burmese people and Buddhism.

Since seizing power in a coup on Feb. 1, military chief Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has filed 11 charges against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She faces 102 years in prison if convicted on all counts. At the same time, the junta chief has, through regime-controlled media, followed in the footsteps of former military dictators and slandered the popular leader.

The military deserves praise for sheer persistence, if nothing else: It has kept up its efforts to slur Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for 33 years in a row. To gauge the effectiveness—or lack thereof—of this smear campaign, one need look no further than the NLD’s sweeping electoral victories in the general elections of 1990, 2015 and 2020. Sadly, the military appears to be clinging to this failed strategy. It seems Min Aung Hlaing and his subordinates still do not understand—or pretend not to understand—that the people have supported Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for more than 30 years not just because of her sacrifices for the country, but most importantly because of her goodwill toward and consideration for the people. Perhaps they do not understand it because goodwill toward the people is something they have never had. No wonder, then, that they continue barking at the moon!

A cartoon featured in the July 1991 issue of Myat Khin Thit magazine criticizing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s marriage to British national Michael Aris.


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