Myanmar silences Suu Kyi – again

By Shawn W Crispin (Asia Times)

BANGKOK – As widely anticipated, the Lady was found guilty.

A heavily guarded court attached to Myanmar's notorious Insein prison ruled on Tuesday that pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was guilty of violating the terms of a previous five-year house arrest order, sentencing her to three years in prison.

In an apparent bid to blunt international criticism, the military run government promptly reduced her sentence to one and a half years, which she will be allowed to serve at her lakeside home in the old capital Yangon. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has spent 16 of the past 20 years under house arrest.

The sentence will effectively preclude her involvement in upcoming multi-party elections, tentatively scheduled for 2010. It will also likely put the military regime on a new collision course with the United States, which maintains a raft of trade and investment sanctions against the rights-abusing regime, including recent sanctions barring the import to the US of all gems sourced in Myanmar.

In the lead-up to the verdict, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had offered the carrot of possible new US investments in exchange for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. President Barack Obama's administration had also earlier hinted at the possibility of reviewing US policy towards Myanmar, though any conciliatory gestures towards the military regime were expected to be an uphill battle in Congress.

The verdict against Suu Kyi is expected to dampen those diplomatic overtures and will likely prompt Obama's administration to take a harder line towards the military regime. That could include greater scrutiny of information emerging about Myanmar's ties to US adversary North Korea, including potential recent exchanges of missile and
nuclear know-how.

Until now the US has been mum on news reports about growing military and apparent nuclear ties between the two hermit regimes. That will likely change after US Senator Jim Webb visits Myanmar in the weeks ahead, representing the first elected US official to tour the country in over a decade.

Whether the US under Obama now decides to take as hard a line as the previous George W Bush administration, which frequently referred to Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny", will be influenced by how great a threat Myanmar's weapons ambitions are perceived to pose to regional security and US strategic interests, including the use of military facilities in neighboring Thailand.

Bilateral relations will also be complicated by Tuesday's conviction of John Yettaw, an American citizen who was sentenced to seven years' hard labor on charges related to immigration offenses and swimming in a non-swimming area.

The government-controlled media had hinted in previous commentaries that Yettaw was an American spy, but it's become apparent to most observers that he was likely a well-intentioned, if not slightly deranged, private citizen acting on his own behalf. He told the court he swam across the lake to warn Suu Kyi about a vision he had that she
would be targeted for assassination by terrorists.

The regime was clearly spooked that a guilty verdict against Suu Kyi could lead to rounds of unrest across the country. Hours after the verdict was read, there were no immediate indications of street protests or other unrest.

The state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper threatened that "The people who favor democracy do not want to see riots and protests that can harm their goal".

"Anti-government groups inside and outside the nation and the United States are accusing the government of deterring Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for election," the paper continued, according to wire reports. "The approved constitution and the forthcoming election law will decide who will be entitled and who will not be entitled to stand for election."

Yet the verdict against Suu Kyi may ensure that her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which swept the 1990 elections that the military later annulled, will boycott the upcoming polls. Their boycott would discredit the military's democratic exercise in the eyes of the international community, particularly from the perspective of
the US and European Union.

The verdict is also expected to put renewed pressure on the United Nations to take a harder line against the regime. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was forbidden to visit Suu Kyi during a recent trip to Myanmar, where he held two separate meetings with the junta's top leader, Senior General Than Shwe.

According to reports, Than Shwe impressed on Ban his intention to move towards democracy and civilian rule. Myanmar's ambassador to the United Nations even indicated – apparently disingenuously – his government's intention to release political prisoners so that they could take part in the upcoming polls and that the junta would
consider allowing outside observers to monitor the polls.

Some Myanmar analysts believe that if Suu Kyi's verdict is received calmly by the population that the military will soon move to establish an interim civilian regime to govern in the run-up to next year's polls. Such a move would allow various military leaders to trade their khakis for business suits and head out onto the campaign trail.

But Suu Kyi's absence will be conspicuous on that campaign trail, both domestically and internationally, and Myanmar will likely be just as isolated under supposed democratic civilian leadership as it is currently under authoritarian military rule.