Aung San Suu Kyi: Swimming Against the Tide – ISN

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Opposition hero Aung San Suu Kyi is faces five years in jail ahead of elections after visitor hands Burma’s junta a timely gift.

Kafka could not have scripted it better. Burma’s iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was due for release from almost two decades of on-off detention on 27 May. With elections scheduled for next year, her National League for Democracy would – in the unlikely event of free and fair voting – win handsomely, just as it did in 1990. That result landed Aung San her incarceration, once the military junta overturned it. Would the junta have the nerve to do the same again next year?

Maybe it will not have to, now that it has found a pretext for stopping her participation. On 3 May, an American by the name of John Yettaw swam across the lake alongside which the NLD leader’s Rangoon home sits, stayed two nights before swimming back across from whence he came, and was then detained by police.

Under Burma’s Orwellian regime, all house guests who are not relatives must be registered with the authorities. Foreigners are banned from staying in the homes of local people. The regime now can charge Suu Kyi with violating the terms of her house arrest, and the whole episode looks like some sort of bizarre stagecraft carried out by the military rulers.

It remains unclear why Yettaw visited Suu Kyi, with her lawyer describing him as “that wretched American” in media reports, insisting that his visit was unsolicited, and that he was asked to leave upon arrival. However, this will likely cut little ice with the Than Shwe regime, which maintains a firm grip on Burma’s judiciary, when the case goes to court.
Since 2007, when protesters were beaten off the streets by the army, Burma’s junta has led the international community a merry dance.

The UN envoy – ostensibly there to push for democratic reforms and fair elections – has been repeatedly snubbed whenever he has visited. Much of the country remains off-limits to foreigners, especially regions home to ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Shan.

Political prisoners continue to be rounded up, making a mockery of the pledge to hold free elections.

Most notoriously, the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in mid-2008 left almost 150,000 dead, and the regime seemed unwilling or unable to help the afflicted – despite having accrued over $3.5 billion in foreign reserves, and earning around $150 million per month in gas revenues.

Moreover, the generals played a convoluted game of cat-and-mouse with the legions of international agencies and NGOs trying to get aid to the affected region. ASEAN mediation eventually allowed access for some agencies, but their activities remain strictly monitored.

EU and US sanctions remain in place, though their effectiveness remains debatable. Both sides of the Atlantic are looking at ways of getting aid money into Burma, while bypassing the regime. Best of luck on that, and even if the Sauron-like eye in Napjidaw can be distracted, neighboring states in ASEAN and regional giants India and China all have sufficient investment ties with the generals to offset any direct-to-people assistance.

In short, the generals will do anything possible to retain power. Already earmarking 25 percent of seats “up for grabs” in the coming election to the military, it appears they would rather the international opprobrium now from a trumped-up show trial, than allow Suu Kyi to gain any momentum or public profile among ordinary Burmese, which an open election would bring.

And why not? Relative to the crimes committed during their years in power, the generals have received scant punishment. Reacting to Suu Kyi’s arrest, Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton have been quoted as being “deeply disturbed,” or words to that effect, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is “deeply concerned.” None of which will concern the generals, who – as has been the case since Suu Kyi was first detained almost 20 years ago – will not be disturbed one bit, in any sense of the word.

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