Myanmar democracy icon Suu Kyi believed held in solitary confinement in Naypyidaw Prison

The junta is keeping her hidden because they ‘can’t compete with her politically,’ experts say.
By Soe San Aung for RFA Burmese
Myanmar democracy icon Suu Kyi believed held in solitary confinement in Naypyidaw Prison An artist’s interpretation based on interviews with family and a prisoner depicts Aung San Suu Kyi in solitary confinement in Naypyidaw Prison, Myanmar.
Illustration by Rebel Pepper/RFA

For over a year, the whereabouts of Myanmar’s jailed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been a mystery. But a source close to her legal team told Radio Free Asia they believe she is in solitary confinement in Naypyidaw Prison, in the capital. 

Each week, her legal team receives a list of items she needs in detention, which they deliver every Monday.

“Last Monday, I delivered the requested materials to Naypyidaw Prison,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “I had to send the materials there, so I assumed she was there.”

The source said that each week, they inquire about Suu Kyi’s health, and authorities say she is “doing well,” despite earlier reports that she was suffering from dental issues.

Members of her legal team haven’t seen her since Dec. 30, 2022, at Naypyidaw Prison, when the junta barred them from further visiting her. Multiple requests to meet with her have gone unanswered.

Suu Kyi’s economic policy advisor, Australian economist Sean Turnell – who was imprisoned with her for a while but later released – and her son Kim Aris also believe she is in Naypyidaw Prison, but have no proof. 

Granted freedom in 2010 after years of house arrest under the former junta, Suu Kyi, 78, was arrested in the aftermath of the February 2021 coup, which removed the democratically elected government from power. 

As state counsellor, she served as Myanmar’s de facto leader. After the coup, she was sentenced by the junta to 33 years on 19 charges, but that sentence was later reduced to 27 years.

Keeping her hidden

Given Suu Kyi’s popularity among the public, the junta wants to keep her hidden from view, said political commentator Than Soe Naing.

“As long as she is in the political arena, they cannot compete with her politically,” he said. “Therefore, Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from public view without disclosing her exact location.”

A satellite image of Naypyidaw Prison shows a building in the center that was built between Jan. 31, 2022 and April 24, 2023. (Airbus with RFA annotation)

Attempts to contact Deputy Director General Naing Win, spokesperson for the junta’s Prison Department, to inquire about Suu Kyi have gone unanswered.

In January, her son Kim Aris, who lives in the United Kingdom, received a letter from her – the first communication from her since the ban on visits, and the first time he had heard from her since before the coup that removed the democratically elected government that she was de facto leader of.

The letter largely concerned family affairs, and little else, he said.

Aris recently told RFA that she is likely being held in Naypyidaw Prison in solitary confinement, but wasn’t sure, and added that the junta had ignored his repeated requests for information on her status.

“I have no reason to believe she’s been moved to any form of house arrest,” he said. “The only house she has is the house in [Yangon], and I know she’s not there.”

Too hot or too cold

Aris said he doubts his mother has access to the medical treatment she needs for the “ongoing problems with her teeth,” which would make eating difficult.

If she is being held in Naypyidaw Prison, he said, she is likely enduring difficult conditions.

“It’s either too hot or it’s too cold,” he said. “There’s mosquitoes, there’s rats. It’s not a very nice place.”

An artist’s interpretation based on interviews with family and a prisoner depicts Aung San Suu Kyi in solitary confinement in Naypyidaw Prison, Myanmar. (Illustration by Rebel Pepper/RFA)

It is now the hottest time of year in Myanmar, which has been sweltering in a heat wave with temperatures climbing as high as 40 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit).

U.S. and British Embassies in Yangon did not respond to questions about Suu Kyi’s whereabouts, but directed RFA Burmese to earlier statements condemning her detention and calling for her immediate release.

Last month, the junta attempted to auction off her lakeside Yangon home for US$90 million, but no bidders emerged. At that residence, she had received U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Suu Kyi has seen her reputation tarnish during her time as de facto leader of the country, when she defended the military against allegations of genocide against the Rohingya people at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. 

The military’s alleged atrocities included indiscriminate killings, mass rape and village torchings as more than 740,000 fled across the border to Bangladesh.

‘Worst of the lot’

Turnell, Suu Kyi’s economic policy advisor, was arrested after the coup on charges of espionage and he spent one year and nine months in detention, mostly in deplorable conditions in Yangon’s Insein Prison, but also in Naypyidaw Prison with Suu Kyi.

Turnell told RFA that, “to the best of my knowledge, she is where I left her back in November of 2022, which is inside the main Naypyidaw Prison.” He said he’d seen no evidence to support rumors that she’d since been moved to house arrest.

During the time they were together, he said, Suu Kyi was being held in a “small structure [that] had been built for her … right in the center of the prison compound with a wall around it so that other prisoners could not contact her.”

An artist’s interpretation based on interviews with family and a prisoner depicts Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw Prison, Myanmar. (Illustration by Rebel Pepper/RFA)

He described it as a rudimentary, two-room building, “somewhere between a proper structure and a hut,” that lacked air conditioning or curtains for the windows.

Turnell said that the physical conditions, treatment and food in all of the prisons he was held in were “awful,” but he called Naypyidaw “the worst of the lot,” adding that its proximity to the junta generals prompted prison guards “to be that little bit harsher.”

“The climate in Naypyidaw is really horrible,” he said. “It’s in an area that used to be a mangrove swamp … and that’s why the jail was full of insects and rodents and all of that. And, of course, that adds to the discomfort of the place.”

While such conditions would be difficult for any prisoner, they could be life-threatening for someone nearly 80 years of age with existing health problems.

Junta ‘waiting game’

Turnell said Suu Kyi’s solitary confinement in Naypyidaw Prison is just one example of how Myanmar’s current junta is “so much worse than the others … in every aspect.”

“The savagery of it, the brutality, the almost bestial nature of the things that they do is just an order of magnitude worse, it seems to me, then previous military regimes,” he said. “The treatment of Daw Suu just adds to that,” he added, using an honorific. 

Turnell said he doubts the military regime will set her free, given the way they have treated her in the three years since the coup.

“They seem to be playing some sort of waiting game,” he said. “But if they are doing that, that may be the wrong strategy for them because the future does not look bright for them at all.”

Translated by Kalyar Lwin and Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.