Sentence Suspense in Burma – ISN

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Aung San Suu Kyi trial daily protest at Burma Embassy in London (cc) totaloutnow/flickr

Aung San Suu Kyi trial daily protest at Burma Embassy in London (cc) totaloutnow/flickr

The postponement of a verdict in the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is more likely due to the junta’s fear of unrest rather than any second thoughts about a guilty verdict, writes Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch.

It has been dismissed as a “show trial” by US President Barack Obama. Even the normally reticent heads of state in ASEAN – the Southeast Asian regional bloc which includes Burma as a member-state – have chimed in, saying that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi is imperative if elections due to be held next year are to be free and fair.

Suu Kyi is on trial for violating the terms of her house arrest, after a US citizen swam – undetected by the military security that keeps a close watch on her residence – across Rangoon’s Lake Inya to reach her lakefront bungalow. The man, John Yettaw, is on trial separately, after being picked up by police after swimming back across the lake.

Two weeks ago, Suu Kyi’s defense team said that they did not expect a verdict until mid-August. Then, on 28 July, the Burmese Supreme Court announced a decision would come as early as 31 July. With pro-Suu Kyi crowds gathering in Rangoon, and increased security on the streets, officials in Napyidaw reportedly phoned the Court last Friday morning to compel a delay in announcing the verdict.

That telling and unsurprising insight into the absence of judicial independence in Burma aside, the rationale for all the suspense and uncertainty is unclear, as is the case with much of what the secretive, astrology-obsessed generals ruling Burma do on a day-to-day basis.

They have repeatedly said they care little for what the “international community” thinks – though this likely refers to the western countries that have imposed sanctions on the junta. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Burma recently, General Than Shwe refused him access to Suu Kyi.

China, India, Russia and Southeast Asian states continue to engage with the regime, investing in and importing oil and gas. And there are growing concerns that hermit state North Korea is assisting the junta with its ambitious military expansion program, including weapons-use nuclear technology, according to accounts given by ex-military defectors.

The US position on Burma seems contradictory. In Thailand recently for a meeting of Asian foreign ministers, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sparred verbally with the junta, and with Pyongyang, but then said, “If [Suu Kyi] were released, that would open up opportunities at least for my country to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma.” Meanwhile, playing hardball, Obama signed renewed US sanctions into law last week, in advance of the expected Friday verdict.

So is the junta mulling the possibility of an altered US policy on Burma and a reversal of sanctions?

It seems unlikely. For all the US talk of seeking to help the Burmese people, if only the regime would facilitate, it is clear the regime could not care less about such matters. Regional trade partners ensure it can generate ample revenue to maintain its military-driven grip on power.

It seems more likely that the Suu Kyi verdict has been postponed for other reasons. The 21st anniversary of Suu Kyi-led protests against military rule is Saturday, 8 August. The junta’s response to the 1988 uprising was to gun down around 3000 mostly student protestors and jail thousands more. International outrage – in as much as there was sustained pressure on the junta – led to elections in 1990, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide. However the junta overturned that result and kept the Nobel laureate under house arrest for 14 out of the 19 years since.

If Suu Kyi was found guilty before 8 August, it could spark repeat protests, redolent of 1988, and of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the anniversary of which also looms.

Suu Kyi herself is braced for an apparently certain guilty verdict, which would see her receive a 5-year jail term and removal from the political scene ahead of 2010 elections. These look set to be little more than a rubber stamp for continued military rule. The junta is seemingly just playing for time, hoping to string out the process beyond the upcoming anniversaries, with the same pre-ordained outcome likely.

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