Friday, May 15, 2009


Burma's generals
Burma's generals have another pretext for keeping Aung San Suu Kyi locked up

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Last year, as the world tried to persuade Burma's military rulers to allow more foreign help for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, the country's renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi passed a lonely anniversary in the isolation of her lakeside home.

It was five years since she had been detained and placed under house arrest, for the third time.

And under the law - called the "Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts" - the maximum period someone could be held without trial was five years.

Even under Burma's own draconian penal code, Ms Suu Kyi should have been released.

Aung San Suu Kyi's house
John Yettaw swam across Inya Lake to reach Ms Suu Kyi's house

It did not happen. The government simply extended her detention for another year, arguing that the first 360 days did not count.

So there was no expectation that, as she approached her sixth year of confinement this month, she would be released.

But now the Burmese authorities have been handed another pretext for keeping her locked up.

The strange, midnight visit by an American man, John Yettaw, who swam across Inya Lake on 3 May to reach the opposition leader's dilapidated house, has resulted in Ms Suu Kyi and her two assistants being arrested and taken to Insein prison, where they will go on trial next Monday.

Like other dissidents who have been tried inside the prison walls, she will get little opportunity to defend herself, and faces a possible prison sentence of five years.

Mr Yettaw's motives for his visit are a mystery. According to Ms Suu Kyi's lawyer, Kyi Win, he tried to visit the same way last year, but was sent away. This time he apparently pleaded exhaustion after his swim, and was allowed to stay for two nights.

"Everyone is very angry with this wretched American," Kyi Win told reporters. "He's a fool."

Government critics have been quick to point out that Mr Yettaw's visit to one of the most closely guarded houses in Rangoon could surely have been prevented by the authorities.

His previous visit last year had already been reported by Ms Suu Kyi. She has now been charged with violating the terms of her house arrest.

But why go to such lengths to confine a woman who has already spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention, and has had little opportunity to run her increasingly demoralized and divided party?

Insein prison
Aung San Suu Kyi is being held at the Insein prison in Rangoon

The answer is an election the military is planning for some time next year, the country's first in two decades.

This election has been widely dismissed outside Burma as a sham, because it guarantees to preserve the predominant role of the armed forces in politics and society.

But the election matters a great deal to the generals who now rule the country, and in particular to Than Shwe - the ageing, secretive general who still calls most of the shots in Burma.

On my own visits to Burma, electoral legitimacy is something I have heard Burmese ministers go on and on about at length.

Their beef is the legitimacy Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, claims from its resounding victory in the 1990 election, the last held in Burma.

This seems to infuriate them, and they go to extraordinary lengths to try to discredit these claims. Legitimacy seems to be a big issue for the generals, as is security.

Aung San Suu Kyi

"Next year's election is all about Than Shwe's succession," says Aung Naing Oo, a former student activist now living in exile in Thailand.

"He is obsessed with assuring his security once he steps down... so he is being very careful about who is put in key positions. He has to make sure nothing goes wrong."

Aung San Suu Kyi is still the greatest threat to Than Shwe's plans, because of her unrivalled moral stature among Burmese people.

Critics point out that she sometimes seems out of touch - that she has been unrealistically inflexible in the past over issues like maintaining Western sanctions and the results of the 1990 election.

But Than Shwe has not forgotten the last time he released her from house arrest, in 2002, in the mistaken belief that Western sanctions would be eased in return.

They were not, and Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted as a national saviour, mobbed wherever she went by huge crowds.

A year later dozens of her supporters had been killed or jailed, and she was back in detention.

That is why there is a clause in the military-drafted constitution barring anyone "who enjoys the rights and privileges of a foreign citizen" from running for office - Ms Suu Kyi, through her marriage to the late British academic Michael Aris, falls into that category.

There was never much realistic hope that she would be released before the election.

So what about afterwards?

Once the generals have in their own view consigned the 1990 election to the history books by holding an election they are more or less guaranteed to win, perhaps then they will have the confidence to release Aung San Suu Kyi.

And perhaps, once Than Shwe, who is 76 and often in poor health, has left the scene, Burma may see a gradual softening of its repressive political climate.

But no-one is counting on it.



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