The extension of pro- democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest Tuesday highlighted divisions in the international community over how to respond to Myanmar’s ruling generals, with Western powers blasting the court decision but neighboring powers remaining pointedly mute.
A Myanmar court, backed by the ruling generals, convicted Suu Kyi of violating national security laws and extended her house arrest by 18 months in what supporters at home and abroad have dismissed as a show trial. The sentence in effect removes Suu Kyi from playing any public role in elections expected to take place in May.
The U.S., Britain, France and the European Union harshly criticized the court’s decision, and the British-chaired U.N. Security Council said it would hold a closed-door session to discuss the sentence. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who failed to win permission from the generals to see Suu Kyi during a visit to Myanmar last month, again demanded her “immediate and unconditional release.”
But Myanmar’s neighbors and trading partners China and India remained silent on the case, underscoring the difficulty of forging a concerted international response to Suu Kyi’s continued imprisonment.
Tuesday’s verdict would appear to leave Myanmar’s critics without a clear way forward. Before Suu Kyi’s arrest and trial, there were growing calls from Western governments to ease sanctions and engage in dialogue with the generals.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hinted at the prospect of U.S. investment in Myanmar should the military government release Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 other reported political prisoners.
Such overtures have withered as it became apparent that the generals will continue to defy appeals for leniency.
“The verdict has made it more difficult to do anything,” said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University.
“And the U.N. Security Council -- the generals aren’t worried about that. [Senior Gen.] Than Shwe said to Ban Ki-moon, ‘Look, we’re having free and fair elections next year.’ And, at least publicly, the secretary-general bought it.”
The Obama administration is toeing a harder line than some analysts predicted this year when it began its ongoing policy review for Myanmar, also known as Burma. President Obama recently renewed long-standing trade and investment sanctions, including a ban on the import of Myanmar gems.
“There are a number of studies going on right now for making modifications to the current policy, but after this, the Burmese must make some significant concessions, do something really remarkable, to give any rationale for a policy change,” Steinberg said.
Suu Kyi was arrested in May after an uninvited American, John Yettaw, 53, swam across a lake to enter her home. Yettaw was sentenced to three years in prison for breaching Suu Kyi’s house security and an additional four years with hard labor for immigration and other violations.
“The whole trial was politically motivated and began as a deliberate attempt to jail her,” said Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a humanitarian group based in the refugee camp of Mae Sot in Thailand. “The regime wants to attach a criminal record to Aung San Suu Kyi’s life, which they think will prevent her role in politics and in public life.”
Thousands of supporters and security personnel gathered outside the courtroom at Yangon’s Insein Prison for the culmination of the trial. The military-backed court initially sentenced the 64-year-old Suu Kyi to a three-year prison term, including hard labor.
But after a short recess, a high-ranking official read aloud a special order from Than Shwe, the chief of the military government, reducing the sentence by half and allowing the ailing Nobel Peace Prize laureate to serve the time at her villa in Yangon.
A witness in Yangon said unrest broke out in front of the prison, with as many as 50 people taken away in security vans.
State-run television was replaying the announcement of Suu Kyi’s verdict from early afternoon onward.
“They want to highlight the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi gets her sentence reduced,” said Aye Thar Aung, secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy-aligned Committee Representing People’s Parliament, who went to Insein Prison to hear the verdict.
“But what the regime has shown to Burma and the world is they can punish a great leader with a jail sentence on ridiculous charges.”
Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, has been in detention for 14 of the last 20 years, mostly under house arrest. Her party won elections in 1990, but the military government rejected the results and put her in custody.
A much-disputed constitution enacted in 2008 bars Suu Kyi from standing in next year’s national vote on the basis that her late husband, with whom she had children, was a British citizen.
But many analysts think her presence in the campaign would greatly aid the opposition forces.
Suu Kyi’s party has said it will not participate unless the government releases the more than 2,000 reported political prisoners it holds and reviews the 2008 charter.
“This is not only the regime’s rejection of NLD’s call for review of the controversial 2008 constitution, but also ensures that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot play any role in the coming 2010 election,” said Naing Aung of the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma.
“Then, to deflect any serious reaction to this complete injustice, the regime sends her back home for house arrest.”
McDermid is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Swe Win contributed to this report.