The verdict on Aung San Suu Kyi has already been decided
The verdict on Aung San Suu Kyi has already been decided
Posted by Mark Canning
The British ambassador in Burma, Mark Canning, is one of the few outsiders to have been allowed into the courtroom to witness parts of the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. In the first part of a series on her trial, he recounts his experiences
Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for her trial at Rangoon’s Insein prison. Photograph: Reuters
Perhaps only here in Burma could the bizarre events of the last few days have unfolded. Out of the blue, a show trial has been mounted by the country’s military rulers against Aung San Suu Kyi. Her offence? To allow an American intruder into her property, thereby breaching the terms of the detention to which she’s been subject since May 2003. This is surely the only place where the victim of the break-in ends up being charged.
Lying behind this is the regime’s plan for stage-managed elections in 2010. Suu Kyi spoiled the party in 1990, and they are not about to allow it to happen again. So when the generals learned of the strange happenings in Rangoon, they must have seized on it with some joy: here was a way to negotiate the awkwardness of the expiry of her current term of house arrest and to set the custodial clock ticking afresh.
Things haven’t gone quite to plan. The trial has whipped up a storm of criticism. Burma’s neighbours have been outspoken, making clear that the “honour and credibility” of the country is at stake. It’s brought Suu Kyi back to centre stage and reminded everyone what an important figure she is. It’s provided further evidence – if it was needed – of how the 2010 polls will be conducted. In the face of all this, the generals have tacked and conceded access to the courtroom for foreign diplomats.
We’ve been allowed in twice, last week and this. The court is situated in the compound of the notorious Insein jail, a grim and forbidding place shaped like a cake tin, where many of Burma’s political prisoners are housed. It has the familiar trappings: two robed judges, defence, prosecution, motions, civility. An ancient typewriter clacks out the record. Carbon paper is stacked ready to go. Dogs bark. Ceiling fans whirr. Prison staff crane to catch a glimpse of the Lady.
To one side is the paraphernalia confiscated from the intruder. No James Bond devices. No stealth submersibles. No CO2 rebreathers. Just a pair of home-made fins, a flotation device fashioned from water bottles, assorted bits and pieces and – most intriguingly – the robes and Jackie O sunglasses in which Suu Kyi was to be asked to make her escape from Rangoon. Two bemused police ladies were asked at one point to model these outfits, complete with glasses, for the benefit of the court.
One of the curiosities of this affair is how, in the most tightly guarded corner of one of the most tightly controlled countries, a visitor from overseas was able, not once but twice, to bob across the fetid waters of Inya Lake to Suu Kyi’s home.
The entry of Suu Kyi was a memorable moment. Aside from some TV pictures of her meeting visiting UN envoys, she hasn’t been seen since for six years. Despite almost two decades of extraordinary pressure – more than half of it in detention – and agonising personal sacrifices, she looked in remarkable shape. Calm, dignified, upright, exuding quiet authority but no hint of bitterness towards the prosecution side. She commanded her team and in many ways the room.
There was a telling moment as she entered when the police guards rose to their feet before lowering themselves sheepishly down. She welcomed our presence. She hoped to meet us in better times and said how good it was to see people from the outside world. It was deeply impressive and one was left wondering how she managed to display no trace of indignation at this latest twist.
It was good to get access, but I don’t imagine anyone will confuse two short trips to the courtroom with the fundamental issue: the illegality of her detention and that of the 2,000 other political prisoners held in Burma. We’re often told Suu Kyi is no longer relevant, but what went on in court told a very different story. She remains a towering and respected figure across the political spectrum and the Burmese people, despite living in one of the most disconnected and isolated countries in the world, are agog at what’s happening.
The trial is a glaring injustice. But there’s an important wider picture that gets less attention: the 2,000 other political prisoners who languish in Burma’s jails and work camps, the repression heaped on many of Burma’s ethnic minority peoples and the persistent denial of almost all human rights. Suu Kyi is in many ways a symbol of a much broader misery and is one among many brave people who are struggling to achieve a better future for this country.
So where’s the trial going? It’s difficult to see anything but a guilty verdict. Despite the familiar judicial trappings, these trials tend to be pre-scripted. All decisions of any significance in Burma are made by the ubiquitous “higher authority”. This will be no exception and the outcome will be determined many miles from the courtroom. The generals will want to make sure Suu Kyi is unable to play a role in the elections next year. So the betting is on a sentence that extends her house arrest well into 2010 or beyond, although there could be some unforeseen twists along the way.
The prosecution yesterday rejected three of the four defence witnesses her team asked to bring forward. The government called 14. The trial wrapped up for the day a short while ago, and we’re told proceedings will reconvene on Monday for final statements. A verdict could follow the same day. Nobody expects it to be anything other than bad news. The heavy security presence on the streets suggests the same.
The government newspaper trumpets that this will have no bearing on the election plans: “The government is determined to continue hand-in-hand with the people to implement the Seven-Step Road Map in accordance with their aspirations.” Other important news jockeys for position on the New Light’s front page: “PTT lubricants introduced”, “Thayet maintaining development momentum”, “Nation now on path to development”.