BANGKOK – A court in Myanmar on Friday sentenced ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi to three years’ imprisonment with labor after finding her guilty of election fraud, adding more jail time to the 17 years she is already serving for other offenses prosecuted by the military government.
The latest verdict also carries potentially significant political consequences for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party by lending support to the government’s explicit threats to dissolve it before a new election the military has promised for 2023.
Suu Kyi’s party won the the 2020 general election in a landslide victory, but the army seized power the following February and kept her from a second five-year term in office. The army contends it acted because of alleged widespread fraud in the polls though independent election observers did not find any major irregularities. Some critics of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led the takeover and is now Myanmar’s top leader, believe he acted because the vote thwarted his own political ambitions.
A spokesperson for the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections, a non-partisan poll watching group, said Friday they did not observe any election fraud.
“Domestic election observers from Myanmar also did not see that,” Amaël Vier told The Associated Press. "There were improvements to be made for sure — we were still coming from a long way behind other democracies, in Myanmar –- but the claims of the junta that 25% of voters were fraudulent? This does not hold up to our scrutiny, for sure.”
The military’s seizure of power prompted widespread peaceful protests that were quashed with lethal force, triggering armed resistance that some U.N. experts now characterize as civil war.
Suu Kyi had already been sentenced to 17 years in prison on charges of illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition and five counts of corruption. Many top members of her party and government also have been jailed, while others are in hiding or have fled abroad.
Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts say all the charges against her are politically motivated and an attempt to discredit her and legitimize the military’s seizure of power while keeping her from returning to politics. All her trials have been held in closed courts.
Friday’s ruling by the special court at the prison in the capital, Naypyitaw, was conveyed by a legal official who insisted on anonymity for fear of being punished by the authorities, who have restricted the release of information about Suu Kyi’s trials. He said all the defendants appeared in good health.
He said that ousted President Win Myint and the former minister of the president’s office, Min Thu, both co-defendants in the election fraud case, each received sentences of three years. All three received prison terms with labor, a category of punishment that can include hard labor, such as road building, but in this case does not, he said. Lawyers will file appeals in the coming days, he added.
The election fraud charge against Suu Kyi was filed in November by the Election Commission, whose members were replaced by the military after it seized power.
It charged that Suu Kyi and her colleagues violated provisions in the constitution by allegedly influencing the old commission.
The military-appointed commission accused them of being “involved in electoral processes, election fraud and lawless actions” related to the election.
The commission claimed it has found more than 11 million irregularities in voter lists that could have let voters cast multiple ballots or commit other fraud.
Thein Soe, the new Election Commission chief, has said his agency would consider dissolving Suu Kyi’s party, charging that it had worked illegally with the government to give itself an advantage at the polls.
State media reported after a meeting two months ago of the ruling National Defense and Security Council that 2,417 officials had been prosecuted for failing to supervise the electoral processes and action was underway to prosecute voters who cast their ballots more than once.
The Election Commission has also warned that Suu Kyi’s party would be disbanded if it did not submit its financial accounts and expenses for inspection. The commission said it was examining political parties to see whether they were maintaining and using funds in accordance with the law.
Commission member Khin Maung Oo said the examination of Suu Kyi’s party would be delayed because some of its officers had been arrested and others had gone into hiding. Party officials who have escaped arrest said last year that they do not recognize the military-appointed commission and its statements are illegal.
In separate proceedings, Suu Kyi is being tried on the charge of violating the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, and seven counts of corruption charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 15 years each.
Although there is little support for the army’s power grab and skepticism about its claims, they were not alone in criticizing the election, even before the vote took place.
The bedrock problem with Myanmar’s democracy is that the country’s 2008 constitution, drafted under a previous army-led government, reserves 25% of seats in parliament for unelected military officials and grants the military control of key government ministries.
Independent rights groups had criticized the disenfranchisement of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority and cancellation of the vote in certain areas under Suu Kyi’s first government. The Election Commission had cited the dangers of combat between government forces and ethnic minority guerrillas, but critics suggested certain areas were singled out for cancellation because they were certain to elect lawmakers from parties not allied to Suu Kyi’s.
A lack of transparency raised questions about the impartiality of the commission, which was appointed by Suu Kyi’s government.
Human rights groups and other observers also had concerns about a continued crackdown by her government on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including the arbitrary arrest and detention of civil society actors and activists.