Thursday, June 11, 2009

Suu Kyi trial raises Burma aid fears

By Tim Johnston in Bangkok

(FT) -Aid donors have warned that the ongoing trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Laureate, will make it harder to raise aid money for the victims of last year’s cyclone.

“They said there might be some delay; some reservation; that the issue is not separate from the deliberation and consideration of further engagement,” Surin Pitsuan, the secretary General of the Association of South East Asian Nations, said after meeting aid donors on Wednesday.

Aid groups have been struggling to raise money to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit the Irrawaddy delta last May, killing at least 140,000 people and leaving 2.4m other victims.

International aid to Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, is supposed to be separate from political considerations, but the actions of the Burmese government have made it harder for politicians in donor nations to justify the expenditure.

“We should be scaling up our efforts, but political considerations are going to make that difficult,” said one European diplomat who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not only the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, it is the whole political situation in Myanmar.”

He contrasted the $315m so far given for the victims of Nargis with the $10bn that was pledged after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Mrs Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years, and she could face five years in prison if she is found guilty of breaching the terms of her detention after John Yettaw, an American, stayed the night after he swam the lake behind her house.

On Wednesday, she met her lawyers and instructed them to launch a further appeal against a decision banning two defence witnesses from testifying. The court is expected to reconvene on Friday.

The trial has sparked international outrage, and the fallout is being felt by those in charge of aid budgets.

“They certainly mentioned the fact that it has not helped the inclination of their constituencies to engage more fully,” said Mr Pitsuan of the donors who attended the meeting in Bangkok.

Despite her prolonged incarceration, Mrs Suu Kyi still represents the most serious challenge to the rule of Burma’s generals, and critics of the regime believe the authorities are using Mr Yettaw’s uninvited visit as a reason to keep her in jail until after next year’s elections.

Burma is a member of Asean, and the regional group is coordinating the post-Nargis aid programme. But relations have been strained after Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s prime minister and the current chairman of Asean, criticised the decision to put Mrs Suu Kyi on trial, provoking the Burmese authorities to accuse Thailand of bringing the group into disrepute.

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