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As expected, Tuesday saw Aung San Suu Kyi found guilty of violating her house arrest terms by the Burmese authorities. The show trial will prevent the iconic dissident from taking part in 2010 elections. How will the world respond?

Activists mark the 12th anniversary of the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in London in 2007
Activists mark the 12th anniversary of the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in London in 2007

It must be one of literary history’s deep ironies. George Orwell spent some of his formative years serving King and Empire in resource-laden Burma, which, of all the Crown’s far-flung jewels, he regarded as the one most likely to prosper after independence.

Instead, the erstwhile ‘rice-bowl of Asia’ has gone on to become a living embodiment of Orwell’s magnum opus, “1984.” The absurd dystopia that is modern-day ‘Myanmar’ – the name applied to Burma by its military rulers – lives up to its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ credentials today. A military court declared pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest. The sentence handed down was three years in prison with hard labor, but in a display of sardonic faux-magnanimity, the regime commuted her sentence to a mere additional 18 months under house arrest.

This will keep her under lock-and-key until after the national elections scheduled for next year. The elections are already controversial, with 25 percent of seats reserved for the ruling military, over 2,000 opposition politicians and dissidents in jail, and many others in exile. All of which completely undermines any prospect of free and fair elections.

Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections, but then saw that result promptly dismissed by the ruling military. She was barred from formal participation in the elections by a 2008 constitutional sleight-of-pen that focused on her British husband. However, prior to the intervention of John Yettaw – the American who swam the Rangoon lake across to her house, and for which she was deemed guilty of violating her house arrest – Suu Kyi was due for imminent release.

Even without actually running for election, the prospect of her presence in public – even during a tightly managed election – must have struck the superstitious junta as ominous, so soon after the 2007 saffron protests that elicited such a harsh crackdown from the military rulers.

After the verdict, what happens next? Press releases from Burmese opposition groups, NGOs and exiles were in email inboxes within minutes of the verdict, seeking a UN Security Council arms embargo on the junta. Not before time perhaps, given that the junta keeps the bulk of Burma’s 50 million people in abject poverty, while spending a good chunk of the billions of dollars in oil, gas, gems and hardwood revenues on Southeast Asia’s largest standing army. Recent allegations that the junta has been collaborating with the proliferator-par-excellence in Pyongyang, on possible nuclear technology, might also add to the urgency.

Targeted US, EU and UN sanctions are already in place, focusing on the elites and regime cronies. Some argue that these merely push the junta into the arms of less-scrupulous entities, such as China, which is investing in hydroelectric power in Burma, and more significantly, is building a dual port and pipeline structure from the Burmese coast, across the country, and into western China, which will enable Beijing to avoid having to ship some of its oil imports from Africa and the Middle East though the contested Straits of Malacca.

India and South Korea are both investing in Burma, or seeking to, and the junta’s biggest trade partner is its neighbor Thailand, which imports Burmese gas. Singapore is another important commercial ally, and it is thought that the junta members and associates avail of financial and banking services elsewhere in ASEAN, with western options closed off by sanctions.

Will this verdict stretch patience, even in Beijing and across ASEAN? In May, the UN Security Council – China included – voted for a resolution seeking Suu Kyi’s release after the Yettaw incident. In recent weeks, ASEAN states have joined that clamor, with Indonesia and the Philippines the most vocal. Today, the Malaysian foreign minister cited ASEAN “disappointment” with its errant member state, and stated that a regional meeting was needed to discuss the issue.

Given that the junta is defying a UN Security Council resolution, that seems a tepid response; but this time, has ASEAN’s seemingly limitless capacity to tolerate embarrassing behavior by its most troublesome member been exceeded?

The grouping recently established a new human rights body, but one which lacks any teeth to punish those in breach of human rights. If decisive action is left to ASEAN, it seems highly implausible that the junta will suffer any real consequences for its blatant and entirely characteristic two-fingered salute to the rest of the world. And it is questionble whether a belated international arms embargo, if it comes about, will make any difference.

The junta apparently seeks some legitimacy for its 2010 election, to tell the Burmese people that some sort of managed transition to a more prosperous, still-authoritarian polity is feasible. Without Suu Kyi, this notion is like another classic Orwellian passage, made real: “Political language […] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

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