Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Suu Kyi on trial amid increased calls for UN action

by Larry Jagan

Bangkok (Mizzima) - As Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial in Insein prison continues, there is mounting international pressure on the military regime to release her.

Many of the world’s leaders have voiced their concerns at the new charges that have been brought against her, as a result of an unwanted visit to her residence by an American psychology student. Several south-east Asian leaders, normally coy to criticise their neighbours, have also joined the international outcry. Thailand as the president of the regional bloc, ASEAN, issued a collective statement raising the region’s concerns.

But the regime may have shot itself in the foot, according to some observers in Burma. “People are angry, and after the violent crackdown on the monks 18 months ago, may take to the streets again to show their opposition to the junta’s latest absurdity,” said a Rangoon-based diplomat on condition of anonymity. But behind the scenes it may also open opportunities for dialogue between the military rulers and the pro-democracy movement that Aung San Suu Kyi leads, according to some Asian diplomats.

Many are calling on the UN to take up the case, including the former UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. “The only body that the junta really fears, is the Security Council,” Pinheiro told Mizzima in an exclusive interview. “I have personal evidence of this. So the Security Council must address this immediately as matter of absolute urgency,” he said.

The Burmese opposition leader, who was detained nearly six years ago, after her car and entourage were brutally attacked by pro-government thugs when she was travelling in central Burma, has been accused of breaking the conditions of her house arrest.

John William Yettaw, a US citizen, using homemade flippers, swam to Suu Kyi's home. Both Aung San Suu Kyi and her two female assistants asked him to leave, but gave him food and shelter. Yettaw swam to her home on 30 November last year and left a copy of the Book of Mormon after she refused to see him, according to a copy of the police complaint seen by Mizzima.

“This time, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi allowed him to stay at her residence until the night of May 5, 2009, spoke with him and provided him with food and drinks,” the police complaint said.

Aung San Suu Kyi is ready to fight the charges, according to her lawyer, Kyi Win who was only allowed to see her last weekend, on the eve of the trial. Suu Kyi told Yettaw to leave, but he refused, her lawyer told reporters after he visited her. She did not report him to the authorities because,” she did not want anybody to get into trouble because of her,” he said.

“These latest charges are a complete and crude fabrication, a pretext to keep Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in detention,” Pinheiro said.

“But it was completely predictable as the regime, since the fall of (former prime minister and intelligence chief) Khin Nyunt (in 2004), has had no intentions of freeing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or allowing her party (the NLD) to participate in the political process.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years in detention. She has been in virtual isolation during that time being allowed few visitors, apart from her doctor and lawyer, and with her phone line cut.

The current detention order was due to expire on 27 May, but legal experts believe the regime was about to renew the detention order for another six months until November – which would be the maximum possible. While other legal experts believe the six years should be up in May, the fact is that Aung San Suu Kyi was only put under house arrest in October 2003, having been originally detained in Insein prison and the allowed to have a major hysterectomy operation before being transferred to her home to recuperate. Only in November was the current detention under the State Protection Act formalised.

There has been an international furore ever since Aung San Suu Kyi was charged. The cries against the trumped up charges have grown louder and louder as the trial continues. Whatever Than Shwe and the other generals thought was a good idea – putting Aung San Suu Kyi on trial -- could yet back-fire. It is quite clear that the regime’s main intention is to keep the charasmatic pro-democracy leader silent in the run up to the pallnd elections next year, as part of the democracy roadmap announced in August 2003.

But instead, this thinly veiled attempt to paint Aung San Suu Kyi as the villian and imprison her on false charges instead of allowing her to remain under house arrest in her ‘castle’ until the detention period ran out will only anger most people inside and outside the country. More importantly it raises critical questions about the junta’s commitment to the roadmap.

“I think for certain ASEAN would like to see reconciliation, genuine reconciliation [in Burma], and we are hoping the election will be an instrument of genuine reconciliation,” the ASEAN Secretary General told Mizzima recently. “For that to happen, the process needs to credible and inclusive.” The Thai prime minister also stressed this when he met his Burmese counterpart, Then Sein at the ASEAN summit in Hua Hin in February. But there is no doubt that the trial of the opposition leader – in relative secrecy – belies the regime’s assurances to its neighbours that the process is on track and genuine guided democracy will be the outcome.

“The roadmap for me is a process of political consolidation of the regime’s authoritarianism – it’s a roadblock to democracy,” Professor Pinheiro candidly told Mizzima. And he should know – have been one of the few to talk to the military leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi on occasions during his stint as the UN’s human rights envoy to Burma between 2000 and 2007.

“This was crystal clear: from the reopening of the National Convention in May 2004 – with handpicked delegates and without the participation of the NLD and other political parties,” he said. “The constitution is a fully-fledged mockery and the referendum – held during the devastating cyclone – was a fully-fledged sham.”

The former UN insists the whole process is flawed because of the regime’s failure to involve crucial sections of the country, namely the pro-democracy political parties. In fact he is sure they never intended to allow the NLD any role at all in the roadmap.

“During my last meeting, with the junta after the democratic protests in 2007, the Generals made it crystal clear to me that they didn’t have any intentions of allowing the NLD to participate in the process of drafting the constitution.”

“The head of the constitutional drafting committee even put it on writing for me,” Professor Piniero confided.

“The NLD will never, never be associated with the process,” said the written statement handed to the UN envoy on his last visit in late 2007. “It is wishful thinking to believe that the junta could be convinced to bring the NLD on board,” he said.

“It is a great mistake to continue to believe that the junta is committed to a meaningful transition to democracy, as in the Philippines and Indonesia. There have been abundant signals that the roadmap was not an inclusive process and the referendum dispelled any remaining doubts – this is a hyper-flawed process that will not lead anywhere, it’s simply a consolidation of the military’s control of the state,” Professor Pinheiro told Mizzima.

The international community has reacted strongly, with the US president Barack Obama already renewing sanctions. The European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the EU would also consider toughening sanctions against the Burmese regime.

But Professor Pinheiro believes it is time for more imaginative action. “I don’t think the threat of sanctions or more sanctions will have any affect on the junta,” he told Mizzima.

“What is necessary is super-quiet diplomacy, led jointly and collaboratively by the US and China – the only two countries that can influence Burma’s military rulers,” he suggested. “But is has to be done secretly, and not in the public gaze.”

The first step though is to raise the issue again at the UN Security Council – which is likely to happen within the next few days. Another presidential statement is expected, but this is likely to be ignored as was the last one in 2007.

Many activists now believe that the UN SC should consider placing the regime on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“It is frivolous and misguided to insist that the junta is a threat to region’s security. I think over the years, my own reports and others have collected sufficient evidence to demonstrate not only the systematic human rights violations, but the crimes against humanity committed by the junta,” Professor Pinheiro told Mizzima.

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