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Aung San Suu Kyi convicted: a very sad day for human rights

Aung San Suu Kyi        photo-- Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi------- photo-- Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The New York Times reports:

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader, was sentenced Tuesday to three years of hard labor for violating the terms of her house arrest, but her sentence was quickly commuted to a new term of house arrest of up to 18 months.

She presumably will be allowed to leave the prison guest house where she has been held since the trial began May 18 and return to the villa where Myanmar’s ruling junta has kept her confined for 14 of the past 20 years.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 64, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had faced a possible prison term of five years.

“The outcome of this trial has never been in doubt,” Jared Genser, her international counsel in Washington, said Tuesday after the verdict was announced. “The real question is how the international community will react — will it do more than simply condemn this latest injustice?”

The charge against Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was prompted by a strange incident in early May when an American intruder swam across a lake in central Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, and spent two nights in her villa, saying he wanted to save her from assassins.

The intruder, John Yettaw, 53, of Falcon, Mo., was given a seven-year sentence on Tuesday, including four years of hard labor, for abetting Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions and for violating immigration law and local ordinances, according to diplomats reached by telephone in Yangon.

According to news agency reporters allowed inside the courtroom to hear the reading of the three-year sentence, a five-minute recess was called after the verdict was given, and the country’s home minister, Gen. Maung Oo, entered the court and read aloud an order of commutation issued by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the leader of the junta.

The 18-month term will ensure that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi will be confined during a parliamentary election due next year. Many analysts have said they believe the case against her was intended to keep her from participating in the election.

So what will the international community do? In a separate article, the Times notes:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined a chorus of predominantly Western voices condemning the sentencing of Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on Tuesday, demanding her release and saying that, without a change in its human rights practices, Myanmar’s scheduled elections next year would be illegitimate.

“She should not have been tried, and she should not have been convicted. We continue to call for her release,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters in Goma, Congo, where she is on an African tour.

“We also call for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners, including the American, John Yettaw,” she said, referring to a 53-year-old American who swam across a lake in central Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, last May and spent two nights in Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s villa saying he wanted to save her from assassins. The episode triggered the case against her on charges of violating the terms of her house arrest.

Mrs Clinton said: “We are concerned about the harsh punishment. The Burmese junta should immediately end its repression.” She added that Myanmar’s leaders need to start a dialogue with the political opposition and address human rights obligations, “otherwise the elections they have scheduled for next year will have absolutely no legitimacy.”

Mrs Clinton spoke after European governments demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, threatening stricter sanctions against the military regime there to restrict arms supplies and curb its trade with the outside world.

In a statement, the 27-nation European Union said it was ready to impose “targeted measures against those responsible for the verdict” and to stiffen some earlier measures, including an arms export ban, visa restrictions and financial sanctions.

In many parts of the world, her trial has been followed closely and her cause has been embraced by a broad range of politicians and human rights advocates.

“Citizens across the globe are asking world leaders to hold this brutal regime to account,” said Ricken Patel, director of an online campaign network called Avaaz.org. “Aung San Suu Kyi ’s detention today on spurious charges removes any shred of legitimacy.”

Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, said in a statement in London that, while the Myanmar authorities “will hope that a sentence that is shorter than the maximum will be seen by the international community as an act of leniency”, it “must not be seen as such.”

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi “should never have been arrested in the first place. The only issue here is her immediate and unconditional release,” Ms. Khan said.

It was not immediately clear how Myanmar’s Asian neighbors would react. Asian nations generally react cautiously to events in Myanmar, though they do sometimes offer critical comments. Analysts said that, in this instance, they may be willing to accept Myanmar’s protestations of leniency.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, however, called the sentencing “brutal and unjust” and said European sanctions should target profitable industries including timber and ruby mining. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said in a statement the European Union should impose new sanctions aimed at the Myanmar leadership “and sparing the civilian population, which we should continue to protect and assist.”

In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “saddened and angry” at her sentencing and said it was designed by the ruling military leaders of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to keep her out of elections next year.

In a statement, he said: “It is further proof that the military regime in Burma is determined to act with total disregard for accepted standards of the rule of law in defiance of international opinion.”

Calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a global prohibition on arms sales, he added: “The facade of her prosecution is made more monstrous because its real objective is to sever her bond with the people for whom she is a beacon of hope and resistance.” France also called for an arms embargo.

The Obama administration has been reviewing American policy toward Myanmar since February, when Secretary of State Clinton declared that the existing sanctions against its military-run government had been ineffective.

We shall see. Perhaps this would be a good case for the Obama Administration to ramp up its human rights policy. As will be recalled, Secretary Clinton downplayed the role of human rights in her visit to China early in the term. And Michael Posner, the President’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, only had his confirmation hearing on July 28th and is waiting a vote. In the meantime, the State Deparment website tells a sad story:

About the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor


Our bureau is led by an experienced team of public servants, dedicated to the U.S. mission of spreading democracy and respect for human rights globally. The biographies of each of our bureau’s senior staff display the diversity of experience and expertise currently benefiting the U.S. cause of promoting freedom around the world.

Vacant, Assistant Secretary of State

Karen B. Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary

Kay Mayfield, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary

Bruce Connuck, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary

Michael Kozak, Senior Advisor

Vacant, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

Vacant, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.