Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Secret trial

Editorial Desk
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Philippine foreign affairs secretary Alberto Romulo eloquently—and uncharacteristically forcefully—condemned the trial behind closed doors of Burma’s democratic icon, Aung Saan Suu Kyi. He said the government is “deeply troubled and outraged” over the “trumped-up charges” against Suu Kyi and, for once, his statements reflect public opinion.

The circumstances surrounding her transfer from house arrest to outright detention in the Insein Prison, where 2,000 political prisoners languish, are curious, to say the least. A mysterious American, John William Rettaw, is said to have swam across a lake fronting Suu Kyi’s house, then insisted on remaining in her house and was caught when he tried to swim back the next day.

In a closed-door trial conducted by the ruling junta, Suu Kyi has been charged with violating Section 22 of Burma’s Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements.

The sudden detention and trial of Suu Kyi have to be put in the context of the junta’s desire to remain in power. Back in 1990, the junta lost the elections and responded by nullifying the polls and throwing in jail the candidates of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy who were elected by the people. Suu Kyi herself has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years.

Despite its monopoly on power, the junta has been unable to gain public support or legitimacy. In 2007, Burmese monks led public protests against government economic policies, which led to a massive crackdown by the junta. The junta had announced elections in 2010—after a hiatus of 19 years—but observers widely expect the junta to lose the elections if they’re held freely or fairly.

The house arrest of Suu Kyi was due to expire on the 27th of this month; there would have been public pressure for the junta to release her as a sign of good faith for the forthcoming polls. But now, the junta has a ready pretext for extending Suu Kyi’s detention—and even to impose harsher forms of detention.

The Times of London quoted Kyi Win, who is Suu Kyi’s lawyer, as saying “Everyone is very angry with this wretched American,” and that “He is the cause of all these problems. He’s a fool.” The closed-door trial comes at the heels of news that last week, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been put on an IV drip, reportedly after showing signs of dehydration and “difficulty in swallowing food”.

It would certainly be very convenient if the Burmese opposition leader were to suddenly experience a fatal or permanently crippling medical “incident” while under official custody. But aside from fearing the occupational hazards of detention in junta hands, the essential point—and cause for international outrage—was expressed by Romulo when he described the Burmese government’s charges as “trumped-up”.

Burma has to either pursue the difficult road to democratisation, or it can withdraw into the Hermit Kingdom status the junta prefers. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, the arguments of the junta’s apologists—that foreign condemnation, including sanctions, to push forward democratisation is counter-productive—it would be equally counter-productive for the junta to pursue heavy-handed methods concerning its critics.

The Philippine government has appealed to Burma’s junta to conduct the trial in open court, and swiftly. This is under the wholesome principle, to which our own government officially adheres to, that justice delayed is justice denied. And while foreign observers seem rather shocked (though pleasantly so) that the Philippines bucked the Asean trend of refraining from criticising fellow member-states, the truth is that our country’s official position is in keeping with broader trends within the Asean.

Those trends include promoting the rule of law and the adoption of more transparent methods of justice in member-states. We can only hope that having figured out finally that Asean goodwill and solidarity need not come at the expense of human rights, our government will continue to apply diplomatic pressure on the junta.

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