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BURMA: Junta To Release Aung San Suu Kyi After Elections

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Aug 11 2009 (IPS) - Aung San Suu Kyi is to spend another 18 months in detention as Burma’s military rulers try to make sure she cannot influence the planned election next year.

The Nobel peace laureate was convicted of violating state security laws, while she was under house arrest. Her crime: to give an uninvited U.S. citizen food and shelter, after he swam across the lake to her home. “A shamefully predictable verdict, and a sentence shamelessly designed to constitute a ‘concession’ to international pressure and concern,” according to Amnesty International’s Bangkok-based Burma researcher.

Already there has been an international outcry, with the Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown calling the verdict a sham. It is “a purely political sentence” designed to prevent her from taking part in next year’s planned elections, he said.

The trial result is likely to intensify the divisions within the international community – especially between the west, which wants tougher sanctions, and Burma’s Asia allies who oppose sanction on principle.

Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years in jail with hard labour, by the court judges. But immediately after the verdict was read out, Burma’s home minister, Major-General Muang Oo, stood up and announced that the junta had decided to reduce her sentence and allow her to serve the term in her home. In effect she has been given a suspended sentence.

Muang Oo said the government had taken into account the fact that Suu Kyi was the daughter of Burma’s independence hero Aung San, as well as “the need to preserve community peace and tranquillity and prevent any disturbances in the road map to democracy” – a reference to the generals’ plans for the introduction of a guided democracy, including elections next year.

The American intruder, John Yettaw, was jailed for seven years – four with hard labour.

Suu Kyi has already spent more than 14 of the past 20 years in detention. She denied the recent charges, but through her lawyers, said she expected to be convicted.

The pro-democracy campaigner and opposition leader is expected to challenge the verdict in the country’s high court, according to her Burmese lawyers. Aung San Suu Kyi has instructed her defence counsel to exhaust all legal avenues in challenging the regime, according to her American lawyer, Jared Genser.

The guilty verdict was always expected, the apparent lenient sentence more of a surprise. But, head of state Than Shwe’s key objective was always to marginalise her and prevent her from campaigning in next year’s elections.

“They [the military rulers] are frightened of her because they know that if she was allowed to run in the elections, the whole country would vote for her,” Soe Aung, a spokesperson for the exiled Burmese opposition based in Thailand, told IPS. By finding her guilty of a criminal charge and an imposing an 18 month-sentence, they are effectively keeping her out of sight until after the election is held sometime towards the end of next year.

“For a political prisoner, any sentence is unacceptable, and she should be released immediately,” said Benjamin Zawacki, of Amnesty International. “So, 18 months is still too long. But it is long enough for the generals, as simple maths will tell: the 2010 elections can be held as late as 31 December next year and still precede her release by two months,” he said.

But more crucially, according to seasoned Burma watchers like Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to both Thailand and Vietnam, this conviction automatically ends any possibility of her having a public political role under the new constitution. “She is ineligible to stand as a candidate under Article 121 (a) of the new Constitution which disqualifies ‘a person serving a prison term, having been convicted by the Court concerned for having committed an offence’ from standing for election,” he told IPS.

Previously she had been ruled out from being President because of her marriage to a foreigner, the renowned British academic, Michael Aris who died of prostate cancer more than ten years ago. The junta inserted a clause in the constitution – approved by a referendum in 2008 – that effectively excluded Suu Kyi from the highest public office. Article 59, ‘Qualifications of the President and Vice-President Article’ says: “The President of the Union himself, parents, spouse, children and their spouses shall not owe allegiance to a foreign country, nor be subject of or citizen of a foreign country.”

Clearly the trial, the verdict and sentence are all part of Than Shwe’s grand plan to introduce a political system that ensures the army retains its hold on power even under a nominally civilian government after the 2010 elections.

Most analysts and diplomats in Burma believe that the electoral law – which will outline the political procedures for the elections – is likely to be revealed in the coming months.

“It’s almost certain to make it mandatory for all political parties to field candidates in next year’s elections,” said Tonkin. “If the NLD [National League for Democracy] does not comply they will certainly be deregistered,” he added.

While their leader remains under house arrest, the NLD would have no alternative but to boycott the elections. So has Than Shwe really succeeded in silencing his long-term opponent and perhaps deflecting international pressure at the same time – at least for the time being. The apparent lenient sentence is certainly an attempt to placate criticism and pressure from their Asian neighbours, especially China.

“It is indeed a concession, for the generals would have certainly preferred – but for international pressure – five years behind prison bars, rather than 18 months behind house walls,” said Zawacki. “But it should not be accepted as such by the U.N. and [the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)] – both of which have called for Suu Kyi’s release over the past several months, but share a costly history of mistaking lateral or even backward movements in Myanmar as progress.”

But already the international community is increasingly divided on how to bring about change in Burma.

The EU, supported by both France and the United Kingdom have already condemned the court decision and threatened tougher sanctions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said tougher sanctions “should particularly target the resources it profits directly from – wood and ruby mining.” He did also say the oil and gas industry – in which the French company Total is involved – should be exempt.

“The U.N. Security Council must take this opportunity prompted by the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest to adopt a resolution pressing for national reconciliation in Burma and the restoration of genuine democracy,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer and campaigner on pro-democracy leaders behalf. “I also urge the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to continue his personal high-level diplomacy with the Burmese junta and especially with its allies in the region, including China, India, and the ASEAN countries,” he told IPS.

The U.N. Security Council is almost certain to discuss Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention in the near future. Britain and France are strongly pushing the issue. Britain will assume the chair of the U.N. Security Council in August.

“I also believe that the U.N. Security Council – whose will has been flouted – must also now respond resolutely and impose a world-wide ban on the sale of arms to the regime,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.

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