Friday, June 26, 2009

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The Irrawaddy News

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is an unofficial step in the ruling junta’s seven-step road map. It is an essential one for the generals as they look ahead to the fifth step—the upcoming election in 2010.

The generals must now see, however, that by putting Suu Kyi on trial they took one step forward and two steps back.

The regime had no alternative as it prepared for the upcoming election. For the generals, the election is not only a step towards politcal legitimacy, but also the apparatus with which they can legalize the role of the military within the country’s political system.

The road map has three more steps—the election, the convening of a parliamentary assembly and the construction of “a modern, developed and democratic nation.” That’s the generals’ political aim.

In order to complete the whole process, the junta faced one big problem: Suu Kyi, who should have been freed on May 27 after serving six years of house arrest. Her release would have come at least seven months, probably longer, before the planned election.

Free at last, Suu Kyi would have been regarded as a potential troublemaker by the generals, whose political exit strategy would have been closed.

By arresting her and putting her on trial, the junta forestalled that danger, at least for the time being. It was a risky ploy that has unleashed an international outcry that must have surprised the regime.

Once begun, the trial had to continue, with only one verdict in sight: guilty. Suu Kyi will be sentenced to up to five more years of incarceration—and the regime will have taken two big steps backwards.

Unlike its past persecution of Suu Kyi, however, the regime cannot expect to return to “business as usual” this time.

Judging by the volume of international condemnation unleashed by the trial, Suu Kyi’s imprisonment would undoubtedly bring criticism from governments and organizations that have largely ignored past abuses by the regime. Concern about events in Burma is voiced now not only in Washington and other Western capitals.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has traditionally protected the Burmese regime, recently took the unusual step of issuing a statement condemning the trial and calling for Suu Kyi’s release. The statement was formally issued by the Asean chair, Thailand, once a staunch supporter of strong ties to Burma.

During a visit to Burma in early June, Singapore’s Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong urged Burma’s junta leaders not to allow the trial of the pro-democracy leader to affect the national reconciliation process, and to ensure that next year’s general election is free and fair.

Goh emphasized that the elections must be inclusive and that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Suu Kyi, must be part of the process of national reconciliation.

The Burmese junta was also told by Goh—probably much to its chagrin—that Singapore investors were likely to wait until after the 2010 election before pouring any more money into the country.

The Asean statement and Goh’s outspoken appeals indicate that the members of the regional grouping are running out of patience with their out-of-step associate.

As international pressure on the regime mounted, the junta’s No 2, Snr-Gen Maung Aye, rushed to China for talks with leaders of Burma’s closest ally. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly told him that China hoped the junta would promote democracy in Burma.

Although it was natural for the regime to consult at this critical time with a government whose support it so badly needs at the UN, the Burmese junta never allows any country, including China, to dictate its internal politics.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was expected to visit Burma in early July following UN calls for the release of Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 other political prisoners, as well as an assurance that the 2010 election will be all-inclusive. The junta has never heeded such calls from the UN or the international community, however.

There is little chance, anyway, that the election will be all-inclusive, since the NLD is expected to take its own step backwards and boycott the poll unless Suu Kyi is freed. Before the trial, there was a chance that the NLD would agree to participate.

A change of heart by the regime is highly unlikely, and the decision to keep Suu Kyi safely out of the political arena has surely already been taken. She will probably be sentenced to a further three years or so of loss of freedom and be returned to her home to serve it there.

But the regime’s headaches don’t end there. Suu Kyi’s trial is turning out to be the most intractable problem it has faced in the 20 years it has held power.

The above article will appear in the July 2009 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

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