Burma Verdict Draws Outcry

Burmese opposition leader's detention is extended, again.
2009-08-11
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Protesters demonstrate outside Burma's embassy in London, Aug. 11, 2009.
Protesters demonstrate outside Burma's embassy in London, Aug. 11, 2009.
AFP

BANGKOKA court in military-ruled Burma on Tuesday sentenced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to another 18 months under house arrest, ending hopes for clemency and immediately prompting an international outcry.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the last 20 years in detention, was convicted Tuesday of breaching the terms of her detention after John Yettaw, a U.S. tourist, swam across the lake and stayed two nights at her home.

Yettaw, at first accused of being a spy, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment at hard labor. A Vietnam War veteran from Falcon, Mo., Yettaw told the court that he had dreamed Aung San Suu Kyi's life was in danger and had gone to warn her.

The verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and a Nobel Peace laureate, was widely expected as a ploy to prevent her from contesting government-controlled national elections set for 2010.

Those polls will be Burma's first since 1990, when the NLD won by a landslide but was never allowed to take power.

Aung San Suu Kyi's conviction and sentence, commuted from three years' hard labor, followed a series of diplomatic efforts aimed at securing her release.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last month traveled to Burma and urged junta leader Gen. Than Shwe to free her, while Washington hinted that it could ease some sanctions if Burma's human rights record improved.

In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned both sentences and called for Aung San Suu Kyi’s "immediate unconditional release."

"The conviction and sentencing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi today on charges related to an uninvited intrusion into her home violate universal principles of human rights, run counter to Burma’s commitments under the ASEAN charter, and demonstrate continued disregard for U.N. Security Council statements," Obama's statement said.

"Today’s unjust decision reminds us of the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have been denied their liberty because of their pursuit of a government that respects the will, rights, and aspirations of all Burmese citizens.  They, too, should be freed," he said.

"I call on the Burmese regime to heed the views of its own people and the international community and to work towards genuine national reconciliation."

The European Union (EU) meanwhile said it would "respond with additional targeted measures against those responsible for the verdict."

"In addition, the EU will further reinforce its restrictive measures targeting the regime of Burma/Myanmar, including its economic interests," the bloc's Swedish presidency said in a statement.

Verdict 'predictable'

Jared Genser, a U.S.-based lawyer who represents Aung San Suu Kyi, called the verdict "unsurprising."

“I think it was clear from the outset that Aung San Suu Kyi was going to be convicted and sentenced in a way to remove her from being able to influence the final step of the junta’s road map to what they’ve called ‘disciplined democracy’ in the forthcoming 2010 elections,” Genser said.

Genser said he wants "nobody [to] be fooled" by Gen. Than Shwe's decision to commute Aung San Suu Kyi's sentence, which he said the junta chief hoped would be "perceived as a gesture of compassion."

The attorney said he has already filed a petition to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on Aung San Suu Kyi's behalf and pledged to press the U.N. Security Council to proceed to a judgment on her case.

But Genser added that Aung San Suu Kyi has said she does not want the world to focus on her detention, calling it "merely symbolic" of a broader set of abuses against the people of Burma.

"It is important that the international community not lose focus on the fact that the goal needs to be the restoration of democracy and national reconciliation in Burma between the junta, the NLD, and ethnic groups,” he said.

Sanctions urged

New York-based Human Rights Watch called the verdict "reprehensible" and urged Burma’s allies and other governments to condemn the sentence, demand Aung San Suu Kyi's immediate and unconditional release, and impose additional targeted sanctions against Burma's military leadership.

"This trial was a farce, a brutal distortion of the legal process," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Sheridan Prasso, an associate fellow at the Asia Society in New York, cited reports that thousands of NLD supporters protested immediately after the verdict as evidence of "the lengths to which pro-democracy supporters will go to risk defying the regime."

But she cast doubt of the likelihood of further sanctions bringing about change so long as China remains a regional patron.

"Economic sanctions and boycotts have very little effect as long as China continues to be Burma’s largest source of aid, trade, and investment, and Burma remains a rich source of timber and natural gas to China," Prasso said.

Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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