Burma's Rulers Not Only Tread on Their People But Spit at the West

Aung San Suu Kyi probably knew she was courting danger when she allowed "that wretched American," as one of her lawyers called John Yettaw, to sleep overnight in her home. He'd exhausted himself swimming across the lake on which her house is situated and withholding mercy doesn't come naturally to the type of person who wins a Nobel Peace Prize.

Burma's ruling junta is another tiger that can't change its spots. No doubt, its 12 generals are congratulating themselves over catching up Suu Kyi in a technical violation of her house arrest (allowing, however uninvited, an unauthorized visitor).

Aung Din, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma called it a "cunning scheme." But there's nothing clever or cunning about using the flimsiest and most obvious of legalistic pretexts to deposit Suu Kyi in Rangoon's infamous Insein prison. Like many of the junta's actions and policies, it's heavy-handed, just like you'd expect from a tin-pot dictatorship. Even more pitiful, the junta seems to work at cross purposes with itself.

For example, the New York Times had just run a story entitled A Year After Storm, Subtle Changes in Myanmar. Last May, Cyclone Nargis, swept through the Irrawaddy Delta killing 85,000 and leaving 54,000 missing (presumed dead). The subsequent "surge of humanitarian aid," reports the Times, "might have opened a breach in the political wall around Myanmar, including perhaps a new and softer line by the United States."

If you'll recall, the junta at first refused to allow aid organizations into the country. " But now it "readily accepts air shipments of foreign aid," though not by sea because "the xenophobic junta -- still [fears] a seaborne invasion by Western powers. ... [Also] the number of international aid groups allowed to work in Myanmar has doubled in the past year."

The article quotes Frank Smithuis, director of Médecins Sans Frontières in Burma: "Look, the human rights record is shaky, yes, and it's politically nice to beat up Burma, but the military has actually been quite helpful to us."

"Shaky"? Try nightmarish. "Politically nice to beat up Burma"? There couldn't possibly be any other reason besides politics that over 100 groups outside of Burma are working for its democracy and that the United States and the European Union have sanctioned it, could there?

More to the point, no sooner did a major American media outlet in effect pat the junta on the back for signs it was growing a conscience then the junta turned around and arrested one of the world's most beloved women. Will the Times also praise the junta for allowing foreign media and diplomats to attend the trial? (Uh, probably not, since it only lasted one day.)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was livid, declaring to a congressional hearing that the trial was "baseless" and that the 2010 elections were "illegitimate because of the way they have treated her." Sure, the junta is an easy target, but the point is they shouldn't be, especially since, post-Nargis, the world has been reaching out to it.

The UN and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) also censured Suu Kyi's arrest, as did the European Union. Then the United States extended the current sanctions regimen, which wasn't even up for reconsideration until the end of the year, when it expires.

Maybe the Times and the aid organizations quoted in the article, however well intentioned, were giving the junta too much credit. In the view of Asia Times Online's Brian McCartan, the flow of aid that the junta allowed is regulated by The Aid Wall.

Many international aid groups are angling to extend their activities beyond the Irrawaddy Delta. ... They complain that the junta has maintained restrictions in other parts of the country, effectively building an "aid wall" around the Nargis-hit delta. ... the military rulers clearly still believe an extended relief effort could have political repercussions, including unwanted observers of its alleged human-rights abuses and empowerment of grassroots communities.

In fact...

. . . the humanitarian aid community's outreach in the Irrawaddy Delta has not resulted in greater openness but rather represents the latest example of the junta's well-worn open-and-closed strategy for maintaining power.

Supposedly the 12 generals of the ruling junta are preparing for next year's elections. By mimicking democracy, they hope to seduce the United States and the European Union into removing sanctions. But imprisoning the Lady, as she's known to Burmese, erecting an aid wall, and oppressing minorities such as the Karens and Shan are a funny way of showing you care about the West's opinion. 

Clearly, the junta doesn't. Thanks to oil and gas deals, among other business transactions, it already has China and India in their economic corner. Sacrificing development from the West is a small price to pay to ensure that the junta endures.

The Bush administration went out on a limb to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group to overlook India's refusal to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. One can't help but wonder why the United States can't exact some sort of reciprocity from India. Expecting India to completely disengage from the junta is unrealistic. But asking it to withdraw specified deals in response to fresh human rights violations on the part of the junta shouldn't be too much to ask.

Meanwhile one encouraging development has emerged as a result of Aung San Suu Kyi's internment. Irrawaddy Magazine reports that East Timor President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta has teamed up with the Burma Lawyers' Council. Together they intend to petition the International Criminal Court to begin investigations in hopes of charging the junta's leader, General Than Shwe, with human rights abuses and violations of international law.

The ICC may not be able to haul him into court, but it will make it that much harder for India, if not China, to continue dealing with the junta.