The future of the lakeside villa in which Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest is feared to be in jeopardy, after a court ruled in favour of her estranged brother, allowing the property to be sold.
The colonial-style house at 54-56 University Avenue, which stands besides Yangon’s Inya Lake, is – for many in Myanmar – a symbol of the country’s struggle for democracy.
For decades, however, Aung San Suu Kyi has been locked in a legal battle with her older brother Aung San Oo, an engineer who lives in the US, over ownership of the house. He first filed a legal suit in 2000, and the case has been examined by the courts multiple times since.
The latest hearings proceeded as Aung San Suu Kyi, 77, was again imprisoned. She has been detained since February 2021, when the military ousted her government and took power in a coup. She has been accused of dozens of charges, which rights groups say are politically motivated.
Aung San Oo told the Guardian that the recent decision by Myanmar’s supreme court in Naypyidaw had supported an earlier 2012 ruling that he was entitled to an equal share of the property.
“In 2012 it was stated that if we cannot agree how to physically divide it up then it will be legal to auction off and split whatever money … The last court hearing a few weeks ago was to confirm that,” he said.
Aung San Oo declined to confirm whether he has plans to sell the property, saying this was a private matter. He disagreed that it was a site of historic significance.
The two-acre (0.8-hectare) property was given by the government to their mother, Khin Kyi, after their father, the independence hero general Aung San, was assassinated in 1947. Khin Kyi died in 1988, shortly after the military’s brutal crackdown on huge pro-democracy uprisings, which Aung San Suu Kyi had helped lead.
Aung San Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest in 1989, and would spend 15 years in the villa until 2010. Cut off from the world, she would listen to BBC radio for hours each day, read books and meditate.
At weekends, she would give pro-democracy speeches from the villa, standing on top of a table to address vast crowds gathered outside the gate of the compound. Hundreds or even thousands would gather to hear her speak.
Later, President Barack Obama and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton travelled to the villa to meet Aung San Suu Kyi during a historic visit.
She has not lived in the house since her release in 2012.
The property, though in a dilapidated condition, is estimated by Aung San Oo’s lawyer to be worth $90m, according to reports. Aung San Oo was unable to share court documents.
Local media also reported the court had ruled in Aung San Oo’s favour.
Last week, the national unity government (NUG), which was formed by elected lawmakers as well as civil society activists in opposition to the coup, said it had declared the house a site of national heritage, which would prevent its sale or destruction. Such a declaration cannot be enforced until the military junta is overthrown, however.
“This is not just a house or property, this is the place where she was held for more than 15 years in her life,” said Dr Sasa, a spokesperson for the NUG. “This is a powerful symbol of hope for the people of Myanmar.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was not given representation during the court’s latest proceedings regarding the house, he added.
The court case is one of many Aung San Suu Kyi has faced over the past 18 months. A series of convictions in military-controlled courts since the coup have led to a total prison sentence of 20 years. Further cases against her are continuing and could lead to decades more time in prison.