x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Suu Kyi's conviction condemned

As Myanmar's opposition leader is sentenced to 18 months house arrest, world leaders and human rights advocates condemn a verdict that surprised no one but as yet there is no consensus on how to challenge a government that continues to imprisons its critics. While Aung San Suu Kyi remains an inspiration to democracy advocates, international division ensures the junta's survival.

On Tuesday, a criminal court inside Insein prison in Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma), sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to 3 years of imprisonment for violating her order for house arrest, with the sentence reduced to 18 months, to be served under house arrest. John William Yettaw, an American who thought he was on a mission from God to save Ms Suu Kyi, ended up inadvertently extending her detention. "It started with his now infamous swim in May," the Associated Press reported. "Overweight, asthmatic and suffering from borderline diabetes, he arrived at the back door of the Nobel Peace laureate's home and lay down exhausted, with cramps in both legs. Suu Kyi's two companions heard him moaning but let him in only after dawn. "Then Suu Kyi herself told him to get out, allowing him to stay two nights when he complained of ill health instead of kicking him out onto the street. She later explained she had known so many colleagues who were unfairly arrested and would not wish that fate on him. "The bizarre and unexpected visit led to a trial in which Suu Kyi was sentenced Tuesday to 18 more months of detention on a charge of violating her house arrest, and 53-year-old Yettaw got seven years' imprisonment with hard labour." The sentence for Myanmar's opposition leader brought swift condemnation from around the world. The US President Barack Obama said the conviction of Ms Suu Kyi was a violation of "the universal principle of human rights." Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, wrote in The Guardian: "There was absolutely nothing surprising about today's verdict by a Burmese court in the case against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for violating the conditions of her house arrest: guilty with a three-year prison sentence 'commuted' to 18 months under house arrest. We at Amnesty International had anticipated that this is what the government would do: a guilty verdict but a less-than-maximum sentence would be the government's back-handed 'concession' to the international community's pressure and concern. "Yet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a prisoner of conscience, and as such, should have never been detained in the first place. The only acceptable 'concession' is her immediate and unconditional release. "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's sentence is outrageous and abominable. It is a slap in the face of the international community. If they felt they could weather the diplomatic storm of sentencing Daw Suu Kyi to the maximum five years behind bars, doubtless the generals would have done so." Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "This trial was a farce, a brutal distortion of the legal process. By silencing prominent opponents through bogus trials, the generals are clearly showing why the elections they have been touting for next year won't bring change." The Times noted that during Ms Suu Kyi's trial: "She sat throughout with a straight back, calmly and intently following the interminable legal arguments. She spoke politely and gravely to the prosecutors and judges. The British Ambassador described her as 'composed, upright, crackling with energy'; even the prison police rose to their feet in respect as she entered the courtroom. The Chargé d'Affaires of the Philippines said: 'She exuded a type of aura which can be described as moving, quite awe-inspiring.' "If it has brought no other benefit, the trial which came to an end today has given foreign observers rare glimpses of the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But it has done little to explain the personal mystery surrounding her: how has a 64-year old woman - physically slight, and even frail - endured what for most people would be a life of unbearable loneliness, isolation and deprivation? "Since 1990, Ms Suu Kyi has spent close to 14 years under detention in the decaying lakeside villa in central Rangoon where the eccentric American, John Yettaw, paid his fateful visit to her. She receives a visit from her doctor once a month; a handful of times, she has been visited by Ibrahim Gambari, Ban Ki Moon's envoy to Burma. But when the UN Secretary-General himself came to Rangoon last month, the junta denied him permission to see Ms Suu Kyi." An editorial for The Christian Science Monitor said: "Suu Kyi's appeal lies in part from her backing by Buddhist monks. They are an everyday presence in Burmese life. And in ancient days, it was often the leading Buddhist clergy, based on their close reading of the people's will, who decided whether a king should stay or fall. A ruler's legitimacy rested on the views of Buddhist believers, who revere monks for their compassion and pam, symbolised by their daily walks door to door with begging bowls asking for alms - mainly from the women in a home. "Just as China suppresses the views of the Dalai Lama in Buddhist Tibet, the regime in Burma has suppressed the monkhood, along with Suu Kyi. "Yet it is the spiritual desires of the Burmese that can empower monks to act and to demand that Suu Kyi be released and that democracy be allowed. "If the West wants to save Burma, it must look for ways to 'engage' the monks. Out of the monks' humility and compassion - feminine qualities, even in the political arena - the people will rally someday to help free their real leader from the shackles of a long-overdue detention." In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall wrote: "The perennial question of what to do about Burma is back in play following the military junta's decision today to renew the house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no shortage of suggestions. The problem, activists and campaigners say, lies in securing broad-based international support for substantive action and sustaining it when attention shifts elsewhere. To date, such collective determination has been almost wholly lacking. "The EU, the US and other countries maintain limited sanctions on the generals. Britain has shown a diplomatic lead in trying to pressure the junta, with the prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his wife, Sarah Brown, taking a personal interest. In May the UN security council went further than before, demanding the immediate release of all 2,100 Burmese political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and calling for a 'genuine' national dialogue. "But today's predictable chorus of western condemnation was not matched by similar levels of concern in China, India and Thailand, Burma's neighbours, main trading partners and the countries with most leverage. By commuting Aung San Suu Kyi's sentence, the junta evidently hopes these key partners, and the Association of South-East Asian Nations, will applaud its supposed leniency and deem no further action necessary."

pwoodward@thenational.ae