1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Myanmar: What's behind Aung San Suu Kyi 'confusing' pardon?

August 2, 2023

The pardon granted to Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi will cut her sentence by six years, but the junta still intends to keep her locked up for decades. Regime opponents dismiss the move as a "political trick."

Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi arrive to the parliament in 2018
Both Aung San Suu Kyi (r) and her ally Win Myint (l) saw their sentences reducedImage: That Aung/AFP/Getty Images

The military regime in Myanmar has announced a partial pardon for the ousted democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week, reducing her 33-year sentence by six years.

Suu Kyi is 78 years old. Myanmar's military deposed of her democratically elected government in a coup two and a half years ago and the junta has been clamping down on any political opposition ever since.

The politician has been convicted of 19 offenses, including corruption, in the aftermath of the coup. She denies all charges.

Junta officials have now said five of those offenses have been pardoned, including breaching a natural disaster mitigation law while campaigning during the COVID pandemic. Last week, state media reported that the ousted leader might be transferred from prison to house arrest.

State of emergency extended before pardons

Myanmar analyst Aung Thu Nyein says there were rumors that Suu Kyi could be set free, but the junta has decided to reduce her sentence instead.

"The pardon of the junta seems confusing," he said. "I expect more lenient treatment for her, but I don't expect immediate change as long as the [the government] feels secure."

Junta controls soldiers' lives

With the latest pardon, Suu Kyi has another 27 years left on her sentence. Her ally and former leader of the now-dissolved National League for Democracy, 71-year-old Win Myint, also received a partial pardon, reducing his sentence from 12 to 8 years. The move was part of a grant of amnesty that also saw more than 7,000 prisoners released on Tuesday to mark Buddhist Lent.

Just a day before this show of leniency, the military officially postponed new elections in Myanmar that had been promised to take place this month. Instead, the junta extended a state of emergency for another six months, its fourth extension, amid the conflict in the Southeast Asian country.

Shadow government says pardons are a 'trick'

The regime is currently is facing an armed insurgency complete with the shadow government comprised of Aung San Suu Kyi supporters and other anti-junta politicians. The so-called National Unity Government (NUG) said the pardons show that the junta is feeling international pressure to end the crisis. 

"This is a political trick aimed at relieving pressure," spokesman Kyaw Zaw was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency.

"They must be released unconditionally since they were arbitrarily detained. All political prisoners must be released," he said.

Junta's motive 'impossible' to guess

For David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar analyst based in Thailand, the shortening of Suu Kyi's and Myint's sentences is a "total non-concession."

The move "has to be cast in light of the extension of the state of emergency the day before," which shows that the junta, officially the State Administration Council (SAC), is holding onto power, he told DW.

Myanmar dissidents resist junta from Thailand

Mathieson says it is "impossible to know for certain what propelled this move, whether it was a gambit the SAC had kept in reserve, or internal machinations in the regime have pushed for some movement on stemming the resistance, however meaningless it actually is."

"There is simply no coherence in the SAC's decision making. They seem to make it up day to day and all decisions are based on near term survival," he added.

Possible pressure from China

While the internal workings of the regime are hard to grasp, the junta seems determined to soften its public image. In addition to repeated mass pardons, they have also allowed Suu Kyi to meet with foreign diplomats. In July, Thailand's foreign minister said he had met with her, the first-known meeting since her detention. And last week, a Chinese special envoy was given permission to speak with Suu Kyi, reports say.

This step is especially significant as Myanmar's government has been boosting ties with China amid Western sanctions. The move has given rise to speculation that Beijing was pressuring the junta into concessions.

"Did China have a role to play? It's highly likely that Beijing did have some hand in this, but until we can know for sure, it is premature to contend that China was behind it all," Mathieson said of Suu Kyi's pardon.

Myanmar: A family changed forever by the military coup

Myanmar has seen decades of conflict and military rule since gaining its independence from the UK in 1948. Suu Kyi was repeatedly detained between 1989 to 2010 and spent almost 15 years under house arrest. In 1991, she was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She became the country's top civilian leader in 2016.

The 2021 coup which ousted her opened a "Pandora's Box of grievances" and the pro-democracy resistance is now "an existential threat to the military's power," Mathieson said.

The analysts believes that recent moves by the junta show "the SAC is bereft of original ideas and they're trying to reanimate political ploys of previous decades, but it simply won't work."

"Myanmar is a different country now," he said.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco