Suu Kyi’s detention splits East and West

Larry Jagan
The Morning Express

International responses to Tuesday’s sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, to an extended period of house arrest have split on Asian and Western lines. The leaders of Britain, France and the United States all strongly condemned the one-and-a-half-year sentence as a travesty of justice and the trial as a sham. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon added his voice to renewed calls for her immediate release.

Most Asian countries – apart from the Philippines and Indonesia – have been more muted in their response, labeling the decision more diplomatically as “a mistake”. Suu Kyi’s detention is certain to increase divisions between the West and Asia on how to encourage genuine political reform in military run Myanmar. At least that is what the junta’s top general Than Shwe appears to be counting on, as he moves forward with plans to introduce “guided democracy”, including tentative multi-party elections scheduled for later next year. Suu Kyi was handed an additional 18 months under house arrest after being convicted of violating state security laws. Her alleged crime: to offer food and shelter to an uninvited US citizen, John Yettaw, who secretly swam to enter her lakeside residence in the old capital of Yangon. Suu Kyi denied abetting Yettaw, though she always expected to be convicted, her lawyers told Asia Times Online.

According to her Burmese lawyers, she will challenge the verdict in the High Court. She has also instructed her defense counsel to exhaust all legal avenues in challenging the regime, according to her American lawyer, Jared Gensher. “A shamefully predictable verdict, and a sentence shamelessly designed to constitute a concession to international pressure and concern,” said Amnesty International’s Bangkok-based Myanmar researcher, Benjamin Zawacki.

The international hue and cry may not force Myanmar’s generals to reconsider their decision, but it may yet force them to revise their strategy. The entire purpose of the junta’s touted “roadmap to democracy” was to give international credibility to the civilian government installed after next year’s elections. Polls that exclude Suu Kyi, analysts say, will not pass the democratic sniff test with most Western democracies.
“They [the military rulers] are frightened of her because they know that if she was allowed to run in the elections, the whole country would vote for her,” claimed Soe Aung, a spokesperson for the exiled political opposition based in Thailand. By sentencing her to 18 months, the regime will effectively keep her out of public sight until after the election is held next year.

According to seasoned Myanmar watcher Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to both Thailand and Vietnam, Suu Kyi’s conviction ends any possibility of her playing a public political role under the new constitution. “She is ineligible to stand as a candidate under article 121 (a) of the new constitution which disqualifies a person serving a prison term … from standing for election,” he said in an interview. Previously, Suu Kyi had been ruled out by the 2008 constitution from becoming president because of her marriage to a foreigner, the renowned British academic, Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer more than 10 years ago.

Towards discipline democracy

With Suu Kyi in detention and unable to participate in the elections, the generals will now concentrate on a peaceful transfer of power to the next generation of military leaders under the guise of civilian rule. They will also likely increase their harassment of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) political party, which resoundingly won the 1990 elections the military later annulled.

Analysts and diplomats in Yangon believe that the election law, which will outline the political procedures for the polls, will be revealed in the coming months. “It’s almost certain to make it mandatory for all political parties to field candidates in next year’s elections,” said former ambassador Tonkin. “If the NLD does not comply they will certainly be deregistered,” he added.

Although Than Shwe told the United Nations special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, a couple of years ago that the NLD would be allowed to contest the elections, it would definitely suit his plans for the pro-democracy party to boycott them at their choice. Than Shwe is also expected to shortly announce the formation of an interim government that will hold administrative power until the elections are staged, according to senior military sources at Myanmar’s new fortified capital of Naypyidaw.

According to that plan, Than Shwe and other senior generals, including junta No 2 Maung Aye, plan to stand down after the elections. New houses are already being built for them and others near the town of Maymeo, according to Myanmar military sources. Meanwhile, all government ministries have been ordered to complete their outstanding work by the end of August, including the preparation of statistical information.

Most of the current ministers have told their staff they will no longer be in their positions by the end of the year. According to Myanmar military sources, members of the interim government will not be allowed to run in the elections, motivating sitting ministers to resign their posts so they can later run for elected office. “According to Than Shwe’s plans, all the current ministers will have to resign if they are to join a political party and fight the forthcoming elections,” said the independent Burmese academic Win Min.

Conciliatory detention

While Suu Kyi’s trial and conviction will pave the way for the military’s transition towards “discipline democracy”, it’s unclear what role she may be allowed to play after or in the direct run up to the elections. Some analysts believe Than Shwe’s order to commute her sentence from three years in prison to a year and a half under house arrest sent a sort of conciliatory signal. So, too, they say, did Than Shwe’s reference in commuting her sentence to national independence leader and Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San.

The first test, some say, will be if Suu Kyi is allowed to meet members of her NLD’s central committee and certain diplomats. Another will concern Suu Kyi’s own reaction to her sentencing and whether she stands by her earlier offer to engage in dialogue with the regime, which she maintained even during her court hearing. There is even speculation that the government could release her with other political prisoners in a mass amnesty, as they had vaguely promised to do before the elections.

The lenient sentence was also no doubt aimed at placating international criticism and pressure, including from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbors. ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan recently warned Myanmar’s military regime that the Suu Kyi trial had to be transparent for the regional grouping to accept the result. “Some ASEAN allies will certainly endorse the verdict,” said Tonkin. “But others will be reluctant to, though they may keep their reservations private.”

The wider international community is also divided on how best to encourage political change in Myanmar. The EU, France and the United Kingdom strongly condemned Tuesday’s court decision and have threatened tougher sanctions – punitive actions most Asian nations, even those which campaigned for Suu Kyi’s immediate release, remain opposed to.

“Along with the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, the international community must make common cause in pressuring the junta to agree to a timetable for Myanmar’s transition to real democratic rule,” said Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in an interview with Asia Times Online. “Pressure – diplomatic, political and cultural – should be applied but not economic sanctions as they would impoverish an already beleaguered people,” he added.

Singapore is also dismissive of the West’s sanctions approach. “What can we do? Can we use force? Can we use trade sanctions? The Europeans and the Americans have done their worst, it has not worked. Can we criticize? Yes we can. Should we engage? Some people said yes, some people said no,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo told journalists “We decided on balance that good engagement is leverage, that we can have some influence over the process. That’s how it is.”

It’s still possible that behind the scenes Asian diplomacy may produce a breakthrough that helps to make the elections internationally credible. There may even be a joker in the pack from the stiff sentence handed down to the American intruder. “John Yettaw’s sentence is a clear ploy on the junta’s part,” said Martin Moreland, a former British ambassador to Myanmar. “It’s a thinly veiled appeal to [former US president] Bill Clinton to come on a rescue mission, like that to Pyongyang,” he added, referring to Clinton’s recent trip to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists imprisoned for entering the country illegally.

According to sources in Naypyidaw, Than Shwe is still open to some sort of a rapprochement with Washington. China and Singapore, key Myanmar allies, apparently earlier urged the junta to seize the opportunity presented of a possible US review of its Myanmar policy in exchange for certain concessions, including the release of political prisoners. But judging by Obama’s and other Western leaders’ strident response to Suu Kyi’s sentencing, that deal is off the table.

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