New Internationalist

Dark Days for Burma

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Teashop gossip and the ‘generous’ Generals: Burma is again in the international spotlight following the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home detention. Alex Lewis reports.

As rallies and candlelight vigils and were held around the world yesterday in response to the extension of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s home detention for another 18 months, life remained rather normal on the streets of Burma’s former capital Rangoon. While post-sentencing the secret police bundled away some 20 demonstrators outside the courthouse to an uncertain future, the images of popular uprising that captivated the world’s attention in late 2007 were nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps the result was inevitable. Perhaps the junta had prepared a crackdown in the advent of civil unrest. Whatever the case, teashops across Rangoon and beyond acted as forums for hushed dissent.

Teashop gossip

Scattered throughout Burma, the teashop is a meeting place, a social space, where trusted friends share gossip and news of their country. Zaw Win, an artist in Rangoon, has fond memories of the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007 but like most others could do little more than relieve his angst over sweet Burmese tea.

Scattered throughout Burma, the teashop is a meeting place, a social space, where trusted friends share gossip and news of their country

‘We are very angry, but what can we do? I want to express this feeling but I am afraid of being arrested. The sentencing of the Lady (the name given to Suu Kyi by the Burmese people) is Burma’s shame.’

Charged under the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements after an uninvited visit from 54-year-old US citizen John Yettaw, the court case, in the words of her US-based lawyer Jared Genser ‘was a pre-ordained conclusion’.

While the junta put on a major campaign throughout the circus trial, condemned internationally from its beginnings in mid-May through to its conclusion on Tuesday, was not without its moments of concern for the paranoid regime.

In a country highly charged on superstition, the collapse of Danok pagoda in early June killed several construction workers. Yet the symbolism of this event was far greater than the human loss. Financed by ruling Senior General Than Shwe, the reconstruction work that led to the temple’s collapse was seen as a sign by the people of Burma that despite the dark days of democracy in Burma, the Generals may be pushing their luck at present.

In typically archaic thesaurus-speak, State-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar published on its front page the State Peace and Development Council’s justification for Suu Kyi’s detention.

The crime – a visit from an uninvited foreigner.

The penalty – three years’ hard labour, reduced to 18 months’ home detention.

It may be asked what threat the frail 64 year old continues to present to one of the world’s most ruthless military regimes, but the announcement last year of elections in 2010 and her popularity amongst many of Burma’s 50 million people is clearly an issue for Burma’s top brass.

‘I believe she is deeply feared by the junta, despite being a petite five feet tall and some 100 pounds, because she and her allies won more than 80 per cent of the seats in the parliament in the 1990 elections,’ said Genser in the Washington Post.

Upcoming elections

The election next year aims to consolidate military rule in the form of a ‘democratically elected’ parliament, democratic except for the 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military indefinitely; a change from Khaki uniforms to Calvin Klein suits if you will. Taking a softer tone than usual, the SPDC explained that ‘for the sake of the rule of law’ they were forced to punish her, the subsequent sentence reduction for Suu Kyi a thinly veiled attempt by the regime to show a more considerate side.

‘Taxi drivers in Rangoon are actually listening to the Government radio channels at the moment,’ said Rangoon-based journalist Kyaw Kyaw. ‘Very few people listen to the Government news: they usually listen to the BBC or VOA shortwave broadcasts, but that’s the nature of this trial – the verdict is in effect a Government announcement. Many people feel that the sentence reduced to 18 months by the “generous” actions of Senior General Than Shwe is a good result, considering…’

‘We are very angry, but what can we do? I want to express this feeling but I am afraid of being arrested. The sentencing of the Lady (the name given to Suu Kyi by the Burmese people) is Burma’s shame’

A good result in terms of no forced labour perhaps, but the crafty junta may have been able to kill two birds with one stone in their attempts to deny Suu Kyi a political future in Burma.

‘Her previous home detention had a political focus, she was never given criminal status,’ explains Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Mae Sot, Thailand.

‘It has always been political. However, the intrusion of her home by Yettaw has seen her charged criminally, meaning that under last year’s approved constitution she won’t be able to stand for election next year or anytime in the future.’

‘The junta is serious about this election process and serious about keeping her locked out. We saw them rush through the referendum in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, despite the suffering of their people, in order to keep to their time frame. Any belief that the regime has acted “generously” is just foolish.’

Criticism and disbelief

Perhaps most baffling in this case is just what Yettaw, a Vietnam veteran, aimed to achieve by visiting Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years. He has been heavily criticized for his actions, and much of the story is still riddled with disbelief and elements of conspiracy.

He claims he had a premonition of her imminent assassination, and thus swam across Inya Lake with homemade paddles to warn her. Yettaw’s incursion into her heavily secured villa just days before her previous home detention order was set to end certainly provided the junta with a convenient pretext for this debacle.

Heavily guarded around the clock by military personnel, Suu Kyi’s house located in the Golden Valley area of Rangoon. It stands as a fortified prison within the leafy suburb that houses much of the foreign community and Burmese elite.

‘The junta is serious about this election process and serious about keeping Suu Kyi locked out. We saw them rush through the referendum in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, despite the suffering of their people, in order to keep to their time frame. Any belief that the regime has acted “generously” is just foolish’

‘If he told me he was going to swim to her house I would have told him he was dreaming,” exclaimed Bo Kyi, who met the devout Mormon Yettaw before the incident. ‘When he came to the AAPP offices he seemed very emotional and superstitious. He had a desire to ask me about my own experiences of torture as a political prisoner but as an individual I think most people didn’t see much political ambition. That’s why we were shocked when we heard the news of his actions and alarmed at the consequences it would bring. But we are also surprised that he actually managed to enter Suu Kyi’s house. This is not possible.’

Charged with ‘swimming in a non-swimming area’ amongst other things, his illegal visit to Suu Kyi’s home has resulted in a sentence of seven years’ hard labour.

With health complications and the dubious honour of being the only Westerner amongst Burma’s 2,200 political prisoners, it is hard to see what reaction his jailing will have abroad. Unlike the US journalists released recently from Burma’s current partner in crime, North Korea, Yettaw is not likely to have the support of a former President and all his men.

Nonetheless it is hard to imagine he will remain in Insein prison for too long. ‘The Burmese Government won’t want a dead American on their hands, especially one who has been caught up in what is perceived as a political case outside the country. I imagine he’ll be repatriated to America after serving somewhere under one year,’ said Kyaw Kyaw.

With Burma yet again in the international spotlight, strong calls for action have been sounded across the globe. A global arms embargo and more targeted sanctions have already been suggested.

Symbol of hope

Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner said in the Senate this week ‘that Australia supports these efforts to seek a UN Security Council-mandated arms embargo on Burma. Australia agrees that arms should not be supplied to the Burmese regime, which of course has demonstrated its willingness to use force against the civilian population.’

Yet again the people of Burma are in darkness, confined to the gossip of teashops, but perhaps their plight, and that of their symbol of hope Suu Kyi, has finally found its place in the international spotlight

With Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent commitment to broadcast Radio Australia into Burma on request from Suu Kyi, and nationwide concern with Burma’s alleged nuclear ambitions, it seems Australia, as part of the international community, is preparing to tackle the Burmese regime more aggressively.

Some observers suggest that fumbling delays in the conclusion of the trial were signs that the international community is already having an impact on the Burmese Generals, but China still presents a large problem. A close trading partner with Burma, despite the global outrage at the Suu Kyi sentence, the Chinese have made it clear they are not prepared to act on Burma in the UN Security Council as yet. ‘International society should fully respect Myanmar’s judicial sovereignty,’ said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu.

While diplomats battle out which path forward to take with Burma, the return of ‘the Lady’ to home detention and the eerie political silence that hangs over the streets suggests a return to life as usual in Rangoon. Yet again the people of Burma are in darkness, confined to the gossip of teashops, but perhaps their plight, and that of their symbol of hope Suu Kyi, has finally found its place in the international spotlight.

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