Verdict Reveals Burmese Regime Unbowed by Pressure
Verdict Reveals Burmese Regime Unbowed by Pressure
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 11, 2009; 8:27 AM
BANGKOK, Aug. 11 — The decision by the generals who run Burma to extend Aung San Suu Kyi’s incarceration by 18 months has abruptly snuffed out the dim hope that the regime was becoming more sensitive to international pressure for democratic reform.
The verdict was widely expected: governments and international rights organizations came out with prepared condemnations only minutes after the verdict was announced.
But it has illustrated the West’s inability to change the direction of the Burmese government and the paucity of its arsenal when it comes to punishing repressive regimes.
Analysts say Burma’s ruling junta was determined to use the case to keep Suu Kyi — still the generals’ most formidable opponent despite having spent 14 of the last 19 years under house arrest — out of circulation ahead of elections scheduled for next year, even though the constitution written by the regime wrote guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament.
Earlier this year there was growing international support for the idea that isolating the junta with sanctions had failed in its aims of persuading the generals to improve democratic freedoms and human rights, and that some form of diplomatic and commercial reengagement might be more effective.
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Now the cause of those who believe that sanctions have proved ineffective, serving only to push Burma further into China’s economic and political orbit, has suffered a significant setback. Tuesday’s verdict appears likely to give new ammunition to the highly vocal international pro-sanctions lobby, making it harder for governments to explore a more nuanced approach.
But the international community also is likely to find it difficult to toughen its stance.
“If you look at economic sanctions, our leverage is minimal. There is nothing exciting in our back pocket,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In a short closing statement at her trial, Suu Kyi said that such a verdict would condemn the authorities as much as her and her companions.
“The court will pronounce on the innocence or guilt of a few individuals. The verdict itself will constitute a judgment on the whole of the law, justice and constitutionalism in our country,” she said.
The beginning of the case was bizarre enough. On May 5, the Burmese police arrested John W. Yettaw, a 54-year-old American veteran of the Vietnam War, as he was using home-made flippers and an empty plastic water bottle to swim across the lake that backs onto the dilapidated villa where Suu Kyi has been held.
Yettaw, a native of Falcon, Mo., who relatives say suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his war service, was given a seven-year sentence, including four years hard labor. One of the years of his sentence was for the municipal crime of illegal swimming.
Yettaw told the court that he was returning from warning the Nobel Peace Prize winner that he had had a vision in which she would be killed by terrorists. He had apparently been carrying a Muslim chador so that she could escape in disguise.
Yettaw had tried to visit her before, last November, and succeeded in reaching the house, but she had refused to see him and informed the authorities once he had left.
The fact that he had been given another visa to visit the country spawned conspiracy theories suggesting that the junta had arranged the visit to create a case against her, although Suu Kyi’s more sober supporters came to the conclusion that Yettaw was probably too much of a loose cannon for even the Burmese authorities.
Even if the government was not behind the visit, it offered an opportunity to undermine Suu Kyi’s status as possibly the world’s most famous prisoner of conscience by trying her on criminal charges in courts that have long done the government’s bidding.
She was moved to Rangoon’s Insein prison pending trial. The international reaction was instant. President Obamacalled the charges spurious and said she should be released; European powers threatened to widen sanctions against the regime; even China, one of the regime’s few remaining allies, signed a regional statement calling on Burma to release political prisoners.
Burmese authorities responded by making sure the case had all the trimmings of due legal process: judges, defense attorneys and a system of appeal when the judges barred some of the defense witnesses.
They even allowed diplomats and the media to attend the trial intermittently.
But there was a surreal quality to the performance. The fact that the court was trying to ascertain her guilt when she was the victim of a break-in at her compound was only the icing on a cake that might have been baked by Franz Kafka.
When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moonvisited Burma, he was denied permission to see Suu Kyi on the grounds that the government did not want to be seen to be interfering with the judicial process.
The defense argued that since the government originally took Suu Kyi into “protective custody” after a drunken government mob attacked her convoy, it was the guards surrounding the compound who should have been in the dock. The defense told the court that she had neither invited nor welcomed the intrusion, and they pointed out that the law under which she was being charged was part of a constitution that the generals themselves had repealed.
But in the end, for the courts in Rangoon, legalities mattered less than political expediency.