By Shibani Mahtani

A Myanmar court on Monday found ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of charges including inciting public unrest and sentenced her to four years in prison — the first in a series of verdicts that could keep the 76-year-old Nobel laureate detained for the rest of her life.

Later Monday, state television announced that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing would reduce Suu Kyi’s sentence by two years and keep her detained in her current undisclosed location rather than moving her to a prison.

The reduction does not substantively change Suu Kyi’s fate, as she continues to face more serious charges with potential life sentences.

The United States, Britain, the United Nations and the European Union all roundly condemned the verdict, describing it as political.

“The military regime’s unjust conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi and repression of democratically elected officials are further affronts to democracy and rule of law in Burma,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Monday, using another name for the country. 

“The proceeding that today convicted Aung San Suu Kyi should not be confused with a trial — it is theatre of the absurd and a gross violation of human rights,” Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, said on Twitter.

The closed-door trial in Naypyidaw, the capital, highlights the punitive treatment that the ruling junta is imposing on Suu Kyi, whom the military previously held under house arrest for almost two decades. After her release in 2010, she led her party to successive victories in quasi-democratic elections in 2015 and 2020, before the military seized power in February, again detaining Suu Kyi.

This time, the military seems intent on eliminating Suu Kyi as a political force. Since the coup, she has been held incommunicado in an undisclosed location. The military has piled on a dozen criminal charges against her, including campaigning during the pandemic, corruption and sedition; she faces more than 100 years in jail.ADVERTISING

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Rulings on two of those charges — inciting public unrest against the military and breaching coronavirus rules — were handed down Monday in a closed hearing. A person close to the trial, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on talking to the media, said Suu Kyi received a sentence of two years for each charge.

Two other senior leaders of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, Myanmar’s deposed president, Win Myint, and Naypyidaw’s former mayor Myo Aung, were sentenced to two and four years, respectively. The verdicts were due to be handed down last week but were deferred until Monday. In that time, Suu Kyi was hit with a new charge of corruption.On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, detaining Aung San Suu Kyi, elected ministers and others in a predawn raid. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Myanmar has spiraled deeper into chaos as the trial has unfolded, with armed conflict escalating in parts of the country and the military targeting anti-coup protesters. On Sunday, a military truck rammed into demonstrators in Yangon before soldiers opened fire on the small crowd. At least five were killed, according to local media outlets.

For decades, Suu Kyi advocated nonviolent resistance as she led the struggle for democracy and an end to the military’s dominance of the Southeast Asian country — a cause that won her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and widespread acclaim in the West.

But facing a brutal crackdown by the armed forces in the wake of the coup this year, Myanmar’s people are increasingly adopting a more confrontational approach. A shadow government comprising Suu Kyi allies declared war on the military in September.

Experts say the military, under its commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is set on neutralizing Suu Kyi as a political threat by subjecting her to harsher treatment than she endured during her years confined to her lakeside home in Yangon. Though Suu Kyi was barred from leaving during most of these two decades, the public knew of her whereabouts, and she was able to make brief appearances from behind the gates of her home and speak to diplomats.

Throughout the current trial, however, Suu Kyi has been allowed only brief access to her lawyers. Myanmar’s military government has not allowed diplomats, including an envoy from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to see her.

“Min Aung Hlaing appears determined to silence Aung San Suu Kyi and remove her completely from the political landscape,” said Richard Horsey, Myanmar adviser to the International Crisis Group.

Suu Kyi’s reputation in the West was tainted after she sided with her country’s generals in defending the military against charges of genocide stemming from its violent crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in recent years.

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This year, Myanmar’s people have suffered as the military has exacted retribution against opponents of the coup. Some 1,300 have been killed and more than 7,000 arrested, charged or sentenced, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

“There are many detainees without the profile of Aung San Suu Kyi who currently face the terrifying prospect of years behind bars simply for peacefully exercising their human rights,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns. “They must not be forgotten and left to their fate.”

As the daughter of Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero, Suu Kyi remains beloved in her homeland — where she has almost godlike status — and the generals have long been wary of her appeal.

The military controls Myanmar through its State Administration Council. The junta says Suu Kyi and other ousted political leaders have been given a fair trial and insists the courts are independent. In practice, however, diplomats and experts say, the courts are subservient to the military administration.

Cape Diamond contributed to this report.

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