Burmese dictators get a free pass
Burmese dictators get a free pass
By Frida Ghitis
Friday, June 05, 2009
Every time we become distracted, the generals in Burma manage to jolt us back to attention. The world’s most despotic regime is alive and well, inflicting suffering on its people after five decades in power, while the world does little more than issue an occasional statement of outrage. We’ve grown awkwardly accustomed to that. Now, security forces in the former capital Rangoon (now named Yangon) have sprung into action. The junta’s most recent move comes perfectly timed to ensure continuing hopelessness.
The latest outrage in Burma, the country renamed Myanmar by its ruling generals, came May 14, when startled witnesses saw a security convoy speeding from the home of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, headed for the horrific Insein prison. After years of house detention, the ailing Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was moved to prison to face a show trial. The generals had found a convenient excuse to extend her detention.
The 63-year-old Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy was denied its election victory in 1990, has spent most of the past three decades under house arrest as the ruling junta keeps a tight grip on the power it has refused to relinquish since 1962. The latest detention term was set to expire this month. Then, an American man called John Yettaw swam the distance of the lake adjoining Suu Kyi’s house and visited with the woman known simply as “The Lady.”
Security forces charged her with violating the terms of her detention, which call for almost complete isolation broken only by a monthly visit by her doctor. Her doctor, too, incidentally, was recently jailed while Suu Kyi’s health deteriorated.
The trial’s outcome is all but assured. Now that Suu Kyi’s house arrest has officially expired, she is — in Orwellian fashion — technically free, but confined to one of the world’s worst prisons.
Some will blame Suu Kyi’s new predicament on Yettaw. That misses the point. The unauthorized visitor gave the junta a convenient pretext. The regime was not about to free the one person who stands as a symbol of the Burmese people’s endlessly postponed wish for democracy, reminding us all of the illegitimacy of the government. In fact, it is conceivable that the generals knowingly allowed him to dodge security and reach the house. (I attempted to see Suu Kyi in Rangoon several years ago. The plainclothesmen guarding the perimeter made it coldly clear I would get nowhere.)
After years of sanctions and high-minded rhetoric, the international community has nothing to show for its efforts at persuading the generals to remove their boot from their country’s throat. The generals have grown obscenely wealthy exploiting the land’s mineral riches as their people live in grinding poverty. Burma spends less on health care than any country.
When a hurricane swept ashore last year and killed more than 140,000, the toughest task for aid groups was convincing the authorities to let them help. The generals are so intensely despised that a few years ago they suddenly decided to move the capital from the biggest city, Yangon, to a piece of land in the thick of the Asian jungle, where presumable coup attempts would face more difficult odds.
The junta has spent decades pretending change is just around the corner; that’s why they allowed the 1990 election, which Suu Kyi shocked them by winning. Their latest charade says there will be another election in 2010. Nobody expects it to be open. They certainly would not allow Suu Kyi to go free just in time for 2010.
The Obama administration is reviewing America’s failed Burma policy. A new approach should include pressuring Burma’s Asian neighbors — including China — to take a tough stand against the regime. A dictatorship should receive the message that without freedom for Suu Kyi and true reform, force is an option to bring change.
During this latest incident, cries for Suu Kyi’s freedom have come from Europe and America, but Asia has remained eerily quiet. After all, the governments of countries surrounding Burma have benefitted from its vast natural resources and from trading with the corrupt rulers.
Aung San Suu Kyi has long stood as a symbol of the Burmese people’s hopes for an end to despotism. But her defiant, dignified visage brings to mind more than the aspirations of an oppressed country. It also reminds us of how dismally ineffectual the international community has proven in protecting a people from the brutality of their own government. Suu Kyi reminds us all that we have failed.
Frida Ghitis, a resident of Decatur, is a world affairs columnist and author.