While the predictable condemnations echo around the world after the Burmese junta’s sentencing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to an additional 18 months under house arrest, it may be surprising to hear that, as her international counsel, I would urge caution against focusing too heavily on her plight to the exclusion of the broader situation in Myanmar.
This is not because there is anything remotely just about the outcome of her trial. Indeed, the junta charged Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi with violating the terms of her house arrest during a sixth year of detention when the law under which she was imprisoned limited her house arrest to five years. The junta blamed her for being in contact with an American intruder in her home when it had exclusive security responsibility for her premises. And her trial had deep procedural flaws, including a lack of regular access to her counsel and unjustified denial of proposed defense witnesses. Moreover, it was closed on all but a handful of occasions to outside observers.
For these reasons, we immediately filed a petition to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention requesting what would be a sixth judgment that the terms of her imprisonment are in clear violation of both Burmese and international law.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has repeatedly urged that the international focus not be on her alone. The junta has released her on two previous occasions to relieve intense international pressure, and then used the reduced international focus to clamp down further on its people. The reality is that her freedom will not necessarily yield any real progress in achieving a comprehensive solution to Myanmar’s turmoil. Her situation must be seen in the context of the suffering of Myanmar’s 47 million people under an authoritarian and inept junta.
Few regimes are as illegitimate and cruel as Gen. Than Shwe’s. Since Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was first detained before the 1990 elections, more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed under the military’s campaign of killing, torture and rape against ethnic minorities, as reported by Human Rights Watch. One million refugees have fled the country while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people struggle to subsist in jungle conditions.
Rape is systematically employed as a weapon of war against ethnic minority women, according to groups such as the Shan Women’s Action Network. Last year, when Myanmar was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, the international community had to beg the junta to allow it to save its own people.
Even if Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released, nothing would have changed. Some 2,100 political prisoners would remain imprisoned. The junta would continue to move toward 2010 elections based on an illegitimate constitution that is designed to make its rule permanent. And the regime’s systematic human rights abuses would persist.
All these reasons — not merely Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s new sentence — demonstrate that Myanmar’s junta constitutes a threat to world peace and security meriting urgent international engagement.
What should be done?
First, the U.N. Security Council must use the international focus on Myanmar created by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentencing as an opportunity to revisit its prior demands to the junta, which have not been met, including the release of all political prisoners, open access for humanitarian aid, a movement toward national reconciliation and a restoration of democracy. As a stop-gap measure against human rights abuses, the Security Council should adopt a global arms embargo on the Burmese junta.
Second, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, should press the junta to respond to his requests for reform, which he presented on a recent visit to the country.
Third, the United States, the European Union and allies such as Australia and Canada should urge China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to make clear to the junta that repeated flouting of U.N. demands make defending the regime increasingly difficult.
There are no easy answers to the problems in Myanmar. But it is well understood what needs to be done. The sentencing of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has provided a clear opportunity for action. Now, it is up to the international community to move beyond words of condemnation.