In Burma, things just go from bad to worse. Last week, the country’s revered democracy leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was taken ill. Her doctor reported she was short of breath, had low blood pressure and was needing an IV drip. That was just before he was detained. Then there was news of an American who had swum to Suu Kyi’s house and stayed for two nights in her basement. Now Suu Kyi has been taken to the notorious Insein prison to be tried on trumped-up charges.
To anyone with even a passing notion of Burma’s Orwellian political context, this latest development is oddly predictable, even given the surreal circumstances. To reach an understanding of this awful turn of events, one has only to reach back a few months. In April, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Aung San Suu Kyi’s incarceration was not only in violation of international law, it is in contravention of Burmese law. Since then, it has been incumbent on the Burmese military regime to find a means to justify the country’s leading democracy figure’s continued imprisonment. This compulsion became particularly pressing as Suu Kyi’s current period of detention was scheduled to end on 27 May.
Desperately reaching for an excuse to bounce the country’s legitimate democratic leader into prison, the regime has cooked up a bizarre scheme to use the visit by John Yettaw and to then apply Article 22 of the State Protection Law, which prohibits any Burmese to accept a foreign visitor – even an uninvited one – for an overnight stay without state permission. No mention of the fact that it is the regime who should be on trial for failing to protect a prisoner under their watch. The trial looks set to drag on for days. It will take place behind closed doors, of course, and will likely be removed from any connection to basic legal due process.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s fate mirrors that of Burma’s many other political prisoners. There are now some 2,100 in Burmese prisons, and each and every one has landed there on the back of unfounded charges and hollow legal processes.
Suu Kyi’s widely reported health problems have clearly driven the regime to find ways to take her even further away from public scrutiny. This is a dangerous course, but it does at least suggest that the regime is increasingly reactionary and that international pressure to release Suu Kyi is gaining traction. While we all fear the health consequences should Aung San Suu Kyi be imprisoned, we can at least find some motivation in this fact.
This situation is as clear an indication there ever was, if one was needed, that the proposed 2010 national elections are an absolute sham. Finding scant reason to lock-up the country’s bona fide democracy leader is this regime’s obsession, not democracy. This election has zero credibility and zero democratic accountability.
As the regime has seen fit to look to imprison its greatest threat, we can all be emboldened by her spirit and by her fortitude. That she has remained in Burma to face such threats to her safety and well-being, despite being allowed to leave Burma at any time (as long as she does not return), she has chosen a harsh course. For her, it is the only course, for she must be where her people are.
Over the last few months, there has been debate over policy on Burma among the international community. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi underlines that any policy must have at its core a push for the release of all political prisoners, and should be driven by the need for a democratic transition to be initiated in Burma immediately.
Moreover, Suu Kyi’s arrest offers a firm basis for the continuation of targetted economic sanctions and ongoing international pressure, as the regime obviously fears the opprobrium of global governments and institutions.
The solution to Burma has always been a combination of carrot and stick. What we learn from the case of Aung San Suu Kyi is that there is hope even in disaster, and that sacrifices can at last undermine the regime. Perhaps this appears paradoxical and counterintuitive, but such is the shape of politics in today’s Burma.
The world must not let this moment pass without swift and sure action. It is time for the international community to end Burma’s descent into hell and to use Aung San Suu Kyi’s kangaroo court trial as a base upon which to build greater democracy in our country.
Bo Hla Tint, the foreign affairs minister for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.