Verdict on Suu Kyi Is Not Surprising

Published on August 12, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

 

South China Morning Post – August 13, 2009

 

The trial of 1991 Nobel Peace laureate of Burma has ended on August 11 with a verdict of 18-month long house arrest in her Rangoon lakeside villa. The military chief’s order, which overrules an earlier verdict by a Rangoon court, was read out by Maung Oo, the nation’s home affairs minister.

 

The sentencing is not surprising at all, but disappointing and outrageous for many. The 64-year old, who has spent 14 of the last 20 years in confinement, is one individual the Burmese military sees as its most and immediate threat to its power. The trial, which went on for more than 12 weeks, gave a better picture of the sympathy and support Aung San Suu Kyi has garnered around the world.

 

As expected, condemnations poured in from around the world. The British prime minister Gordon Brown called the verdict “monstrous,” while U.S. president Barack Obama termed it a violation of “the universal principle of human rights.” The much reticent Indian leadership has also called the Burmese government to expedite its political reform and national reconciliation process.

 

Had it been a different leader in the opposition group, the military regime might have listened to the international outcry. The international pressures had its limited impact on the military generals, including its chairman. Than Shwe’s overruling the court’s earlier verdict was a message that he tried to send out to the outside world.

 

Without any foreseeable punitive action from the international community, the military is wary of its own people. If Suu Kyi is released and a constitutional review can happen before the 2010 general election, the Burmese political landscape could be different from what the military has been anticipating. This is one most important reason why the military is doing everything to keep Suu Kyi away from the election.

 

The military chief was trying to show to the world that he personally had shown leniency toward Aung San Suu Kyi by reducing the sentence. In fact, the court’s verdict will not come without prior consent of the military leaders. Reducing it from 3-year harsh prison term to 18 months of house arrest has considerably mitigated the outburst of the international community.

 

Than Shwe, however, said he commuted the sentence to “maintain community peace and stability” and because Suu Kyi was the daughter of Aung San, who negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948.

 

Though no definitive action other than issuing a statement was expected, Suu Kyi’s verdict prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the same day. At the request of France, a meeting was held at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Diplomats from China, Vietnam, Russia and Libya expressed reservations on the original language of U.S.-drafted statement.

 

While the military was looking every possible means to implicate Suu Kyi, the unwavering support of the international community has contributed to lessening the sentence. In the face of such immense international pressure, it seemed inconvenient for the State Peace and Development Council to give her a harsh prison term, even if it had wished to.

 

By giving a maximum prison sentence, the military also does not want to complicate its relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Apart from its bilateral relations, ASEAN is the only international organization where Burma’s interests have been protected thus far.

 

The outcome of the verdict unequivocally stated that the military regime is not yet prepared for a transparent democratic society. Though Suu Kyi may be physically barred from politics and more importantly in next year’s election, her influence among the Burmese people and around the world is likely to grow.

 

The court also sentenced John William Yettaw to three years in prison for breaching Suu Kyi’s house arrest; three years in prison for an immigration violation, and another year for swimming in a restricted zone.

 

Like North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who convinced the Obama administration to send former president Bill Clinton to Pyongyang in exchange for the two American journalists (Laura Ling and Euna Lee), Than Shwe may like to see a similar high-profile visit in exchange for an American prisoner.

 

I doubt this will be an option for the Obama administration. Even if this is a possible consideration, the White House is unlikely to take such step at the moment.

 

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.