After three months of debating, deliberating and stalling, the hammer came down in Myanmar’s trial of the century, with The Lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, sentenced to three years hard labour.
And that was that. Only, it wasn’t. A directive from Senior General Than Shwe was immediately read out in court by the Home Affairs Minister, announcing that her sentence was to be reduced to 18 months house arrest.
The directive — dated August 10, the day before sentencing — showed just how foreign the concept of an independent judiciary is in this country.
“[U]pon the court finding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi guilty … half of the sentence to be served is remitted and the remainder of the sentence is to be suspended,” it said.
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No ifs, no buts — and no shame.
While there were no large-scale protests, there was a palpable sense of anger at the decision to continue Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest (a revered figure in Myanmar, she has spent 14 of the past 20 years locked up at her University Avenue house beside Inya Lake).
As I signed into my gtalk account following the verdict, I was surprised at the number of polite Burmese friends who had changed their screen name to “F_ck Than Shwe” (this also prompted a colleague to ask me on Wednesday what a “motherf_cker” was).
The verdict — Than Shwe’s “leniency” and “generosity” notwithstanding – was also a cue for international outrage.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made clear its “deep disappointment”. US President Barack Obama called for Suu Kyi’s “immediate, unconditional release”, while Kevin Rudd expressed “deep dismay” at the decision.
But, perhaps more quietly, another debate continues to be played out — should Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be the focus of Western government’s Myanmar policies?
It’s an argument that, for most of the past 20 years, has been unthinkable, bordering on sacrilegious.
“No matter how great her sacrifice, the future of one country cannot revolve around the actions and ideas of one person,” Virginia Moncrieff wrote in The Huffington Post last month. “What has happened to this extraordinary woman is of course criminal. But there are 48 million other Burmese people and they cannot continue to be held captive while the international community listens to, and complies with Daw Suu’s policies of sanctions.”
Proponents are all too aware of how these comments are viewed by many, particularly those in the exile community.
“The slightest hint of criticism of [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s] actions brings howls of protest and accusations. (By writing this article I know I will be shouted down),” Moncrieff added.
But this argument has also gained some traction within the country – helped to a degree by Myanmar’s state media and the realisation the government are almost completely unwilling to budge on the issue.
In recent weeks, the Burmese language Myanmar Ahlin and English New Light of Myanmar have reproduced large sections of the Huffington Post article and another published in the Christian Science Monitor on July 22, which made a similar argument.
This reflects what seems to be a genuine sense of frustration among less senior government figures – perhaps everyone below the Senior General, who calls nearly all the shots — at how intractable the West is on the Suu Kyi issue and sanctions.
The Economist’s often excellent Banyan Tree column also weighed in, decrying that “everyone from the UN down views Myanmar through the lens of democracy above all else — even development”.
Inside the country, democracy is a smaller issue than Western governments and exile groups would have you believe. As a friend told me recently, “What we want is a good government, one that gives us more freedom and definitely more opportunities than we have at the moment. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need democracy — most people don’t even know what it is.”
Next week, The Australian National University will hold its biennial Myanmar/Burma Update conference, featuring a who’s who of the Myanmar studies world.
A range of speakers, including several from Myanmar, will present papers on political, economic and social issues.
It will be interesting to see whether there is a similar shift in the academic world. The program appears more optimistic than in previous years — after the 2007 update, the papers from the conference were published as a book called Dictatorship, Disorder and Decline in Myanmar.
My feeling is more papers will advocate greater engagement and, at least in principle, support for next years elections as a first step forward after 20 years of little or no progression.
The ANU has a relatively large number of academics focused on Myanmar and when I asked Professor Kent Anderson, the director of ANU’s Faculty of Asian Studies, earlier this year about the conference, he said: “I cannot speak for all of them but my sense is that this group of scholars is largely interested in promoting a freer Burma.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear attaining a freer Myanmar will only be possible by engaging with the military government, however distasteful that may be.