BANGKOK // Myanmar's pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was yesterday given an additional 18 months detention by a court in Yangon's notorious Insein prison. Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, was convicted of violating state security laws while she was under house arrest for giving a US citizen food and shelter after he swam across the lake to her home.
The sentence, while lighter than expected, ensures Suu Kyi will be unable to contest elections next year. The American John Yettaw was jailed for seven years, four with hard labour. "A shamefully predictable verdict, and a sentence shamelessly designed to constitute a 'concession' to international pressure and concern," Amnesty International's Bangkok-based Myanmar researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, said in an interview.
Already there has been an international outcry, with the British prime minister Gordon Brown calling the verdict a sham. It is "a purely political sentence" designed to prevent Suu Kyi from taking part in next year's planned elections, he said. Many Asian leaders are also joining in the campaign to protest against the pro-democracy leader's continued house arrest. "Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention shames all of Asia," said the former South Korean president and fellow Nobel peace laureate, Kim Dae Jung, adding that it should not be tolerated by the international community.
"Burma's authoritarian rulers have suppressed the people for too long," said Mr Kim The former Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim said in an interview: "The charges are contrived and have been made simply to deny Aung San Suu Kyi the freedom that she is entitled to and that has been denied to her for so many years." Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years in jail with hard labour, but immediately after the verdict was read out, Myanmar's home minister, Major Gen Muang Oo, stood up and announced that the junta had decided to reduce her sentence and allow her to serve an 18-month sentence in her home.
Major Gen Oo said the government had taken into account the fact that Suu Kyi was the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero Aung San, as well as "the need to preserve community peace and tranquillity and prevent any disturbances in the road map to democracy", a reference to the generals' plans for the introduction of guided democracy, including elections next year. Suu Kyi has already spent more than 14 of the past 20 years in detention. She denied the charge of aiding Yettaw, but through her lawyers said she had expected to be convicted.
She is expected to challenge the verdict in the country's high court and has instructed her defence to exhaust all legal avenues in challenging the regime, according to her American lawyer, Jared Genser. In the meantime it is unclear whether she will have to remain in Insein prison or be allowed to return to her home. While the guilty verdict was expected, the sentence was surprising. Analysts say the objective of Than Shwe, Myanmar's leader, was to marginalise Suu Kyi and prevent her from campaigning in next year's elections.
"They [the military rulers] are frightened of her because they know that if she was allowed to run in the elections, the whole country would vote for her," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the exiled Myanmarese opposition based in Thailand. "By sentencing her to 18 months, they are effectively keeping her out of sight until after the election is held sometime towards the end of next year." But more crucially, according Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to both Thailand and Vietnam, this conviction automatically ends any possibility of her having a political role under the new constitution.
"She is ineligible to stand as a candidate under Article 121 (a) of the new constitution, which disqualifies 'a person serving a prison term, having been convicted by the court concerned for having committed an offence' from standing for election," he said. Previously she had been ruled out from being president because of her marriage to a foreigner, the British academic Michael Aris, who died more than 10 years ago.
Most believe that the electoral law, which will outline the political procedures for the elections, is likely to be revealed in the coming months. "It's almost certain to make it mandatory for all political parties to field candidates in next year's elections," said Mr Tonkin. "If the NLD [National League for Democracy] does not comply they will certainly be deregistered." The apparent leniency of the sentence could be an attempt to placate Burma's neighbours, especially China, analysts said.
"It is indeed a concession, for the generals would have certainly preferred - but for international pressure - five years behind prison bars, rather than 18 months behind house walls," said Amnesty's Mr Zawacki. "But it should not be accepted as such by the UN and Asean [Association of South East Asian Nations] - both of which called for Daw Suu Kyi's release over the past several months, but share a costly history of mistaking lateral or even backward movements in Myanmar as progress."
The Asean secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, recently warned Myanmar that the trial had to be transparent for the regional grouping to accept the result. "Some Asean allies will certainly endorse the verdict," said Mr Tonkin. "But others will be reluctant to, though they may keep their reservations private." The international community is increasingly divided on how to bring about change in Myanmar. The EU, supported by both France and the United Kingdom, has already condemned the court decision and threatened tougher sanctions. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said tougher sanctions "should particularly target the resources it profits directly from - wood and ruby mining".