Monday, June 1, 2009

Character Assassination, or Something Worse?

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s rulers may take their efforts to silence Aung San Suu Kyi a step further

THE ruling generals in Naypyidaw must be smiling as their nemesis goes to trial charged with a crime that they did nothing to prevent. In Burma, that is the kind of perversion of justice that truly delights the country’s brutal junta.

The case against Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been accused of violating the conditions of her house arrest by allowing a “guest” to stay overnight in her home, is as ludicrous as it is outrageous. But the people of Burma are not laughing, because they know the consequences of this absurd episode could be deadly serious.

The guest in question is, of course, John William Yettaw, the “wretched American” denounced by Suu Kyi’s lawyers and other Burmese for exposing the country’s revered pro-democracy leader to yet another assault on her indignity by Burma’s generals.

There is nothing to suggest that Yettaw is anything more than a misguided individual who happened to hit upon the bright idea of swimming to Suu Kyi’s lakeside home, where she has spent most of the past two decades under house arrest, as a way to get an interview.

Conspiracy theories are flying fast and furious, but none is more convincing than the suggestion that the junta somehow put him up to this foolhardy plan. We know that the authorities were aware of the fact that he breached the perimeter of her tightly guarded residential compound once before, late last year, but did nothing about it. Nor did they try to prevent him from entering the country in late April, when he returned determined to repeat his improbable feat.

This may not be enough to prove that the regime had a hand in this violation of Suu Kyi’s rights, but it is infinitely stronger than any evidence against “the Lady” herself, who is accused of contravening Section 22 of the Law Safeguarding the State from Dangers of Subversive Elements. And it certainly shows a deplorable disregard for her safety, which has often been disingenuously cited as a reason for locking her up in the first place.

In the first few days after the state-run media reported Yettaw’s arrest, pro-junta blogs set up by the Burmese Ministry of Information had a field day offering their own “theories” about what happened between May 3 and 5. Some even suggested Yettaw was a CIA agent, no doubt plotting some dastardly deed to undermine the “peace and security” that the generals have bestowed upon Burma.

Still others made crude innuendoes about a supposed tryst between the 63-year-old Suu Kyi and 53-year-old Yettaw. Such despicable slurs could hardly have been expected to convince the Burmese public, but they probably earned some ambitious young sycophant a pat on the back from a pleased superior officer, who is now in line for a promotion by Snr-Gen Than Shwe, a man who is said to show rage at the mere mention of Suu Kyi’s name.

As Than Shwe and his cohorts move forward with their efforts to force Burma to accept their dead-end “road map” to a military-dominated “democracy,” they are showing growing impatience with the world’s obsession with Suu Kyi. They know, as they learned to their infinite chagrin in 1990, that they would not stand a chance in a fair election that pits them against her party, the National League for Democracy. So they want her silenced, once and for all.

This raises the fear—the very real fear—that the generals have more in store for Suu Kyi than just a sham trial to justify barricading her in her home for another half-decade or so of less than splendid isolation. If they think they can get away with it, they will happily leave her in her “guesthouse” in Insein Prison to spend the remainder of her rapidly passing years.

What is truly frightening about this prospect is that Burma’s prisons are notoriously hazardous to the lives of their inmates, particularly those doing time for displeasing the powers that be. Suu Kyi is known for her indomitable spirit, but it is doubtful that this alone would help her to withstand the rigors of life in a Burmese gulag, especially given her recent health problems.

The question that many Burmese are now asking themselves is whether the regime will stop this time at character assassination—a tactic that they have used against Suu Kyi in the past, to absolutely no effect. What the people of Burma fear most is that they will lose another leader to martyrdom—not in a hail of bullets like her father, but at the hands of jailers who have killed countless others with their policy of malign neglect.

Burma’s generals have shown how far they’re ready to go to silence Suu Kyi, most infamously with the Depayin attack of 2003, which served as the pretext for her current incarceration. Regardless of how the farcical trial against her plays out, it is clear that the regime’s ultimate goal is to permanently remove her from her unassailable position of moral authority, by any means necessary.

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