Aung San Suu Kyi's trial should inspire concrete European action against Burma's junta, not just a collective venting of wind
As the latest trial of Aung San Suu Kyi draws to its inevitable close, Burma's most famous political prisoner does not lack high-profile vocal support. Gordon Brown has joined showbiz and sporting celebrities in an online campaign to mark her 64th birthday on 19 June. Barack Obama cannily suggested that by dropping the "spurious" charges, Burma's military junta could win political rewards. Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu are also on the case.
But all this noise and fury signifies little more than a collective venting of wind in the absence of concrete measures to squeeze the regime, pro-democracy campaigners say. As in the past, the junta's defiance of international opinion is unbending. Suu Kyi was being dealt with according to the law, said Major-General Aye Myint, deputy defence minister, at the weekend. And he warned that meddling in Burma's internal affairs could be counter-productive.
A feeble attempt to lean on the generals at last week's meeting of EU and Association of South-East Asian Nations foreign ministers in Phnom Penh predictably went nowhere. Their call for Suu Kyi's release, the release of all of Burma's more than 2,000 political prisoners and free elections next year was contemptuously batted away. The trial "is not political. It's not a human rights issue, so we don't accept pressure from abroad," the regime's representative said.
Thus the most likely outcome is that Suu Kyi will be found guilty of breaking the terms of her house arrest when the trial resumes later this week and will receive a further period of detention. She may not get the maximum five-year sentence, as a sop to Asian opinion; but the court will ensure she can play no part in next year's polls, which British diplomats believe was the object of the whole tawdry exercise. And with that, the international furore will gradually subside.
It doesn't have to be that way, said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. There were many ways to bring decisive pressure to bear, not only over political freedoms but over the persecution of Burma's minority populations and accompanying, systematic abuses of human rights, he said. "We cannot have another 'groundhog day' for Aung San Suu Kyi, where once again she is detained, once again the international community expresses outrage, and once again the generals get away with it."
In calling for a combination of new economic, legal and diplomatic measures, campaigners are pushing in particular for more concerted action by the EU. The US imposed a complete investment ban on Burma in 1997, introduced financial and banking restrictions in 2003 and has begun to actively monitor a ban of Burmese imports to ensure that gems and timber do not slip through. Canada has put similar, swingeing sanctions in place.
In comparison, the EU has been tentative to the point of weak-kneed. This is partly because effective, concerted foreign policy action on any issue is problematic under current institutional arrangements; if Ireland finally accepts the Lisbon treaty, that may change. But EU timidity is also the result of divisions between countries such as Britain and Denmark that have sought a tougher line and those, such as Germany, Austria and Italy, that have tended to put their Asian business interests first.
Farmaner said the EU should revive the sanctions proposed after the 2007 Burmese uprising but never fully implemented. They include a US-style ban on all investment, monitored curbs on lucrative imports, an expanded programme of visa restrictions and asset freezes and a ban on issuing insurance to companies doing business in Burma. He also urged the EU to seek a UN-backed global arms embargo covering the junta's chief weapons suppliers – China, India, Russia, Ukraine and Israel.
Diplomatic efforts to alter the junta's behaviour should be stepped up simultaneously, Farmaner suggested, with a promise of aid and assistance should the generals respond positively. But EU countries also had a duty to explore legal action against the regime for its many documented breaches of the Geneva conventions, for its use of ethnic cleansing, torture and forced labour and for its defiance of the UN security council. Prosecutions could be mounted through the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and national courts.
If Europe's leaders really wanted it, Suu Kyi's show trial could be a beginning rather than another depressing dead end. "We've had a lot of fine words but not much practical action," Farmaner said. "It's time that changed."