Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Suu Kyi’s life of solitude: 18 more months of house arrest loom

By Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor

(Times online) -She rises early, meditates, and reads widely and eclectically, from the novels of John le Carré to Buddhist theology. She plays her piano, an instrument whose tuning has been distorted by the tropical heat. She is allowed no radio, let alone a telephone or television; as far as visitors go, she is lucky if she receives a monthly visit from her doctor.

For 13 years and 293 days, this has been the life that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader, has endured. And yesterday, after a three-month trial, she was returned to it — for at least another year and a half.

Western governments reacted with fury and the EU promised new sanctions, after Ms Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further 18 months of incarceration after an uninvited visit by an eccentric American well-wisher to the home where she was being detained.

The court in the Insein Prison in Rangoon sentenced Ms Suu Kyi to three years’ hard labour, but Senior General Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s military dictatorship, commuted that to a year and a half under house arrest.

John Yettaw, 53, whose late-night swim led to the trial, was sentenced to seven years of hard labour.

The reduction of Ms Suu Kyi’s sentence, which could have been as long as five years, appears to have been a consequence of intense international pressure. Nonetheless, the verdicts were denounced by Western governments, especially the EU which promised targeted sanctions against the business interests of the junta.

President Obama and the UN Secretary-General demanded her unconditional release. “She should not have been tried, and she should not have been convicted,” Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said.

Gordon Brown said: “This is a purely political sentence . . . The façade of her prosecution is made more monstrous because its real objective is to sever her bond with the people for whom she is a beacon of hope and resistance.”

The sentence will take Ms Suu Kyi out of the elections due next year, and will confirm many of the regime’s critics in their suspicion that the charges were politically motivated. Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming victory in the last election in 1990, a result that was never accepted by the regime.

Her conviction was no surprise, and the preparations she made show the way that she spends her time in detention. Her lawyers and supporters have assembled a library including the le Carré novels and other English and French fiction, biographies, dictionaries and Buddhist texts.

She has occasionally been visited by Ibrahim Gambari, Ban Ki Moon’s envoy to Burma. But when the UN Secretary-General himself went to Rangoon last month, he was refused permission to see her.

Her husband, the Oxford scholar Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 53, but she was unable to see him in his final days. The junta refused him an entry visa and Ms Suu Kyi feared that if she left Burma she would not be allowed to return. She has seen neither of her sons, now in their thirties, for a decade.

Other prisoners of conscience, such as Nelson Mandela, have endured long periods of detention, but Ms Suu Kyi’s is peculiarly complete. Despite living in the centre of Rangoon, with the noises of the city audible, she is without company. Her only companions have been her friends, the mother and daughter, Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma, who were also sentenced to 18 months house arrest. The garden of her once elegant villa is returning to jungle and her supporters worry that poisonous snakes may lurk in it.

Foreign diplomats and Burmese journalists who were allowed to attend the final hearing of what had mostly been a closed trial, said that Ms Suu Kyi reacted calmly as the verdict and sentence were read out by the senior of the two judges.

One senior diplomat told The Times: “There was an audible gasp of indignation, when the first verdict came — hard labour for this small, almost fragile woman.” Then the Home Affairs Minister, Major-General Maung Oo, unexpectedly appeared in court and read a statement from General Than Shwe, halving the sentence and allowing Ms Suu Kyi to serve it under house arrest rather than in jail. He referred to the importance of “preserving community peace and tranquillity” and to Ms Suu Kyi’s status as the daughter of Burma’s post-war independence leader, Aung San.

Before leaving the court, she told the 30 diplomats in attendance: “I look forward to working with you in the future for the peace and prosperity of my country and the region.” She was then returned to the home where she was arrested three months ago.

Lawyers for all the defendants said that they would appeal against the convictions. Mr Yettaw, a troubled US military veteran who spent time in hospital last week after suffering epileptic seizures, was arrested after swimming to Ms Suu Kyi’s house because he believed she was in danger of being assassinated. He received three years for abetting Ms Suu Kyi’s violation of her house arrest, three for immigration offences, and one for swimming in an unauthorised area.

Other foreigners who have defied the regime — including the British activist, James Mawdsley — have been released from long sentences and deported after just a few months.

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