From a New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. In Myanmar, a decade long experiment in democracy appears to be over after a landslide election victory four months ago. The country's civilian leader was removed from power this week by the country's military.
Today, my colleague Hannah Beech on the rise and fall of on San Suu Kyi.
It's Thursday, February 4th. And I wonder if you can describe this coup. Set the scene for us. So a lot of us went to sleep on Sunday night thinking that there were all these coup rumors in the air and had been going on this kind of coup for over four days in Myanmar. And we went to bed thinking this is something that could happen, but we don't really think it's going to happen.
And so we all went to sleep and then suddenly our phone started ringing and the news is bad.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent more than a decade in detention, has been detained once again by the military down in San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the civilian government had been detained.
And then we entered this kind of awful mix of rumor and fact and fiction.
There were no shots fired as they rounded up and arrested an unknown number of its elected leaders and members of Myanmar's pro-democracy party.
Maybe this person's gone. Maybe that person's gone. There's very little information that is clear. And we suddenly had this moment when the military goes back to kind of the oldest trick in the book, widespread Internet outages, which is to cut much of the telecommunications in the country.
Suddenly, Facebook Messenger goes down. Even some landlines are disconnected.
And I think it was at that point when we realized this is real, this is happening, the military is back in power. And this experiment with democracy, however flawed for Myanmar, was, was over.
So, Hannah, what were you thinking when you realized that there had, in fact been a coup? I think for many people in Myanmar and the world, the story of the country is about one woman right down to Sochi, and she's both considered a heroine of democracy and a villain for her defense of the military's ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. And what this coup proves is that it's Aung San Suu Kyi and her relationship with the military. That is the crux of everything that's happened in the country and where the country will be going in the future.
So where does that story, that relationship with the military start?
So Aung San Suu Kyi was born into political and really military nobility. Her father was an independence hero, fighting against the British. He was the founder of the modern Burmese army. The country at the time was called Burma Myanmar. But he was also assassinated when she was two years old. And in 1962, the military unleashes its first coup and the country was under direct army rule for the next almost 50 years. During that time, Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of her years overseas.
She went to Oxford, she got married, she had kids. But in 1988, she went back to Myanmar and she was suddenly catapulted in front of a crowd at Shwedagon Pagoda, which was the holiest site in Myanmar. And she gave a speech to thousands of people who were protesting military rule. And she is obviously, you know, incredibly nervous. But she delivered an amazing speech.
And at that moment, I think she really kind of cleaned her political birthright.
Hmm, which was that of a daughter of a former military hero calling for. The end of a certain era and military rule. Yeah, and I think that great leaders have the key to their leadership thrust on them or it's something that they have in their blood. And in this case, she had both things in her at the same time, and she used the kind of steely military resolve that was part and parcel of who she was. That was part of her political DNA to survive what happened next, which was that the military arrested her and she spent 15 years in house arrest.
So her first major brush with the military is that it detains her. Despite her personal links to Myanmar's military past, she is seen as a threat to the military leadership of the country. Yeah, that's true.
One of the things that she did that really threatened the military was she starts a political party called the National League for Democracy, which ended up becoming the kind of main opposition force for decades.
And while she was under house arrest, at this point, she was still not giving in to the generals to take one example as her husband was dying of cancer in Britain and the junta said, OK, you can leave the country. But it was a one way ticket. And she refused and she chose her country over her family. And I think the people of Myanmar remember that.
So while she's under house arrest and under the thumb of the military, she is becoming a kind of folk hero to her fellow countrymen.
She's becoming a heroine of democracy. She is the one kind of talisman that the country has to believe in. I mean, one of the remarkable things about going to Myanmar in the bad old days is that you would meet people and they would have photographs of of Aung San Suu Kyi and they would show them to you in secret. You know, they would be in a book or hidden between their walls and shacks and kind of a currency to say, OK, you're on the right side of history.
If you accept this photo that you have of this woman who was kind of a goddess and heroine and a political icon all wrapped into one in a popularity contest and there is no contest dance, I said she is not on top. And then in 2010, as I said, she was released from house arrest. Why was she released from jail? Well, I think the Hunter had spent years, decades actually creating a road map for what it called discipline, flourishing democracy, which is kind of an oxymoronic political system.
But essentially it was a hybrid civilian military system in which there was this kind of facade of democracy in which there would be an elected government. But at the same time, the military would be able to control major levers of power in the country. And it was something that I think that they created because they thought that they may have neutralized Aung San Suu Kyi as a political threat because she was constitutionally barred from becoming president. But what I think the military didn't really realize was that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy was not a spent force, certain 2015 in the first really free elections in a generation in Myanmar, the National League for Democracy wins a landslide victory.
And Aung San Suu Kyi, this opposition leader, is suddenly the de facto leader of a civilian government.
When the Nobel committee chose to honor me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow. For this, I thank the committee and peoples all over the world whose support has strengthened my faith in the common quest for peace. Thank you. And as she became a leader and as she started traveling the world and collecting international human rights awards and becoming this incredibly charismatic Nelson Mandela kind of figure from Myanmar, I think the military thought, wait a second, we have unleashed something that we didn't expect and they were kind of shocked and horrified.
Right. And we have talked to you in the past, Hannah, about this phase and on censorship is political career. And it involves this leader who was once a prisoner and is now a civilian elected official, becoming a kind of international darling. Yeah, and I think it came sort of at a moment in global political history where we really wanted a good news story. Right. I mean, this was this rare example of generals peacefully handing over power to a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and her charisma was incredible at that time.
Let me just begin by saying what a great pleasure it is for me to welcome President Obama again to my house and to be able to meet all of you.
President Obama came to visit Myanmar. Well, good afternoon, everybody mingle over.
And it's the small Southeast Asian country in this house that she endured years of confinement, never giving up hope.
And these world leaders who are like giggling school kids around her, never wavering in her determination to build a free and democratic Burma.
It was a remarkable thing to watch. This kind of democratic experiment and this kind of wonderful political honeymoon continues until 2017 is kind of horrifying game changer. And remind us what happens then in 2017, the military steps up its decades of persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Hundreds of thousands have left their homes in Myanmar, where they'd face the military offensive, following claims that Rohingya militants were guilty of attacking police checkpoints there and unleashed slaughter and mass rape and executions.
And hundreds of villages were burned. More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have now fled across the border into Bangladesh. And over the past three days, some 15000 refugees have been stranded with limited supplies of food and water. In the end, more than 750000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. And they're probably not going to go home forever.
And this is my home. And on the whole, our village.
And this was a pivotal moment in the political narrative of Aung San Suu Kyi, because instead of condemning this ethnic cleansing, this human rights icon, this heroine of democracy doesn't really say anything. She kind of excuses the military.
No, no, it's not ethnic cleansing. It's it's a new problem.
And yet it's linked to old problems as well. In 2019, she even went to The Hague, where Myanmar was being investigated for genocide and international court and defended their actions.
Regrettably, The Gambia has placed before the court an incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar.
And suddenly you had this really dissonant, awful note in this political fairy tale.
And how do you explain her defense, in some cases, her abetting of the military's genocidal campaign against the Rohingya?
I think that there is in Myanmar a feeling that the Rohingya are ultimately foreign interlopers in the country and that in a Buddhist majority nation, there are certain people who don't belong. And I think that Aung San Suu Kyi, as unpalatable as it might be to say, shares those beliefs. She could have used her moral authority to say to the world, look, we condemn all violence and we think that any actions by a military against innocent people is wrong.
And instead, she refused to even use the word Rohingya because by doing so, she was kind of giving humanity to a persecuted ethnic minority.
And what were the consequences of her decision to defend the military in this genocidal campaign?
Well, it depends on which audience you're talking about overseas. It was a complete disaster. She lost her halo as the human rights angel. You know, here was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who wasn't calling out the military for what could be considered genocide against an ethnic minority at home. It gave her support from two very different groups of people, one to people who believe that democracy is the future for for the country and others who are nationalists who might have been on the side of the generals, but believe that she was also promoting their interests.
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How did that happen?
I think fundamentally it sprang from her fraying and then really frosty relationship with the guy who is the real ruler in Myanmar, and that's Senior General Min online, who's the military commander in chief and what should we know about him?
So me online became military chief about a decade ago. And even though Darcel said she had cultivated good relationships with other military leaders, she never really had personal chemistry with him. One of the nicknames that he picked up at a military academy was referred to catfishes, meaning that he would deposit it quietly and then kind of leave a powerful state and sort of walk away. So he doesn't necessarily have a kind of warm and fuzzy personality. And I think that Aung San Suu Kyi, when she refused to kind of cultivate a relationship with him, she left him kind of out in the cold.
And why would that be?
That would seem like a risky thing for the civilian leader of a government that's really run by the military to do.
Yeah, I think you're right. But I think that what has created and what is in the San Suu Kyi is political DNA is an unwillingness to bow to the generals. So I think that General Milang lying went from feeling simply ignored to really feeling threatened. And that sense was really heightened last November when the National League for Democracy won re-election. That brought it even more of a landslide victory than it had received in 2015. And suddenly, Aung San Suu Kyi is even more powerful.
She's even more beloved in the country. And this was really not according to the generals plan. And so he does something which the military is conditioned to do and which he is the commander in chief of the army has the power to do, which is to unleash a coup. Ultimately, this coup was very much about personal animus between two commanders in chief in the country, one who is the military chief on line and one who is the civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
And it strikes me that on Suu Kyi never really figured out how to navigate her relationship with the military in Myanmar, this relationship that very much defines her entire life. At first, she runs afoul of the military. She is imprisoned by them. Then she is given a chance to become a civilian leader by them. And in that role, she defends them after their horrific conduct.
But she can never really give them enough security and enough assurance, and they end up selling her out and she ends up with nothing.
So I think that's the tragedy of of who Aung San Suu Kyi is. You know, she fought against international critics who said, oh, you're you're a human rights activist by saying, no, I'm a politician. But the truth is that she hasn't really been good either as a human rights icon or as a politician. Even though she had this landslide election victories as a politician, she failed because she didn't reach out to the military. She didn't negotiate with them.
And I think the kind of irony of who Aung San Suu Kyi is is that her failing in negotiating the military is because of this kind of military resolve that's baked into who she is. You know, she's got that steely spine. And in this future stint of house arrest, that may be what carries her through, but it put her in a position as a politician where she was not willing to do kind of the dirty work of talking to people who might have been kind of unpalatable for her to talk to.
Where does all of this leave the people of Myanmar now that this coup is done and Suu Kyi is back? In detention. What struck me most on Monday was how quickly Myanmar has kind of returned to the bad old days when fear pervaded and people didn't know who they were supposed to trust. And the thing is that the muscle memory of how to operate under what was essentially a totalitarian system where the walls had eyes and ears, as the Burmese say, that memory and those kind of reflexes have returned.
And so you start speaking in code. You know, you start taking down your Facebook posts, you take down your flags, this kind of atmosphere of fear.
It's also accompanied already by incredible bravery. San Suu Kyi is most famous essay is called Freedom from Fear. And last night there was this civil disobedience campaign in which people were beating pots and pans and honking their cars in unison. It's a small thing, but it's this kind of symbol of the power of freedom from fear and that the people of Myanmar aren't going to give up. They've gone through too much to do so now. I think regardless of whether she's in detention or not, Aung San Suu Kyi is and always will be the heroine of democracy for her country, even if the military subvert that democracy, even if the international community questions her as a human rights icon.
Because what happened with the Rohingya, she is still, to her country a goddess, and nothing is going to change that, even locking her up.
Thank you, Anna. We appreciate it. Thank you very much. On Wednesday, at the behest of the military, a court in Myanmar charged on San Suu Kyi with an obscure legal infraction, illegally importing about 10 walkie talkies. That charge could land her in prison for up to three years. We'll be right back. Brought to you by Harper Collins in celebration of Cicely Tyson's memoir, Just As I Am, Miss Tyson reveals her life as an actress was won over stage and screen and found her roots and how to get away with murder.
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On Wednesday, House Democrats said they would seek to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia from two committees over her extreme and baseless statements. Democratic leaders have scheduled a vote on the matter for today after concluding that House Republican leaders would not act against Green on their own.
The second reason is that the full Congress has never had to take this step. When something like this has happened in the past, leadership on both sides always did the right thing.
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Today's episode was produced by Luke Vandersloot, Diana with Robert Jimmerson and Lindsey Garrison. It was edited by Lisa Chow and engineered by Chris Wood.
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