By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK - The trial of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has ended amid heightened security around the area near the court, with hundreds of trucks full of armed soldiers stationed around Insein prison where the proceedings took place. The prison court is expected to announce its highly anticipated verdict on Friday, according to one of the opposition leader's lawyers, Nyan Win.
The junta's plan to hold democratic elections next year - the first since Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly won May 1990 polls that were annulled by the military - has been put on hold pending the trial's result. People familiar with the situation say that junta leader Senior General Than Shwe will announce in the wake of the verdict the formation of a civilian-led interim government that will hold administrative power until elections are held next year. It's a move, analysts say, designed to deflect growing international criticism.
In the meantime, international pressure is expected to mount, with high-pitched calls for Suu Kyi's and an estimated 2,100 other political prisoners' immediate release from detention. Several Western countries, including the United States and the European Union, have threatened to up their current economic and financial sanctions against the military regime if the pro-democracy leader is sentenced to a new prison term. Suu Kyi was first arrested in 1989 and has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest. For the past five years she has been held in virtual solitary confinement and allowed only occasional visits from her doctor and lawyer.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a regional meeting held last week in Thailand, dangled the prospect of US investment in exchange for freeing Suu Kyi and a move towards genuine democracy. President Barack Obama's administration had earlier hinted it would review US policy towards Myanmar, but according to Clinton that review has been put on hold because of the Suu Kyi trial.
Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, is on trial for breaking the terms of her house arrest by harboring an uninvited US veteran, John William Yettaw, who swam across the lake behind her house and into her back garden. Yettaw has said that he was motivated by a vision that Suu Kyi would be assassinated and he swam to her residence to warn her. The state-controlled media has accused him of being an American agent.
Suu Kyi's la
wyers have argued that the law used to charge her to a possible five years in prison, which is based on the 1974 constitution, is no longer valid. They have also argued that the military appointed security guards posted around her residence should be held responsible for any intrusion onto her property.
She was also not officially under detention according to the government's own wording - meaning she could not have violated the terms of her house arrest, according to Nyan Win,. Rather she has officially been held in her Yangon residence since 2003 for "security reasons".
"We are confident that we will win the case if things go according to the law," Nyan Win told reporters outside the court on Tuesday. But, he added, the judges in the case may make their decision based on other considerations. She is already guilty, according to the state-run newspaper the New Light of Myanmar, which published an editorial arguing against her innocence on the weekend. "This may influence the judges," Nyan Win said.
Many critics and observers see the trial as a sham aimed at influencing the upcoming election results in the military's favor. While the prosecution was allowed 23 witnesses, of whom 14 took the stand, the defense was only permitted two of the four witnesses they requested to appear in court, underscoring rights groups' criticism that Myanmar's judiciary lacks independence.
"The trial has been entirely scripted and the end already decided beforehand," Mark Canning, the British ambassador in Yangon told Asia Times Online in an interview. Canning based that assessment on his recent attendance at one of the trial's closed-to-the-public hearings.
Regime critics have echoed that assessment. "The junta fears Aung San Suu Kyi and wants to keep her locked up forever," said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the Burmese opposition abroad and a former political prisoner now based in Thailand. "With elections planned for 2010, they cannot afford to have her free to campaign against them," he said.
"The trial is all about keeping all voices of dissent silent in the run-up to the rigged elections planned for next year," said Aung Din, a leading Burmese pro-democracy activist based in the US. "No one is in any doubt about the outcome," said Moe Moe, a taxi driver in the country's main commercial city. "Those men in green in Naypyidaw [the new capital some 400 kilometers north of Yangon] know she is the people's hero and the real leader of this country," he added.
While locals anxiously await the trial's verdict, few analysts believe that a guilty verdict will spark major public protests similar to those in 2007, which started as complaints against fast-rising food and fuel prices and later brought thousands out onto the streets in broad anti-government demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. That failed attempt at people's power regime change became known around the world as the Saffron Revolution.
"There is no doubt people are angry at the regime and they will be even angrier if they sentence Daw Suu [Kyi], but they also feel powerless against the authorities, especially after the military crackdown against the saffron revolt two years ago," a Western diplomat based in Yangon told Asia Times Online. Local journalists agree that most local people are too worried and pre-occupied with day-to-day survival to take to the streets. Yet there has been a storm of international protest ever since the opposition leader was put on trial more than two months ago. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon left Myanmar in a huff earlier this month when Than Shwe declined his request to meet with the detained pro-democracy leader.
Some believe the UN could soon table a resolution against Myanmar's military regime through the Security Council, after reports emerged that a North Korean ship was angling to deliver either missile parts or nuclear technology to Myanmar in violation of a resolution passed against Pyongyang. Myanmar allies China and Russia have blocked with their veto powers recent attempts at Security Council censure against the regime's abysmal rights record led by the US.
Last week, many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries at a high-level meeting at the Thai beach resort of Phuket called for her release. US Secretary of State Clinton promised important changes in relations with the military regime if Suu Kyi was freed. "If she was released, that would open up opportunities ... to expand our relationship with [Myanmar], including investments," she told reporters.
The regime has reacted angrily to what it regards as outside interference in its internal affairs and said that international bullying would not influence the judicial process. The call for Suu Kyi's and other prisoners' release is "nonsense and unreasonable", said the New Light of Myanmar at the weekend in response to the US and ASEAN calls for her release. "She must face punishment in accordance with the law: the court will hand down a reasonable term to her if she is found guilty, and it will release her if she is found not guilty," the paper said.
"It is not a question of whether the proceedings are fair or not, she should never have gone on trial in the first place - it's a form of political and legal theater," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Bangkok-based Myanmar researcher. "As a prisoner of conscience, she should be released immediately." Amnesty earlier this week awarded Suu Kyi its "Ambassador of Conscience" award, which was accepted on her behalf by the Irish rock musician Bono, who has long campaigned for her release.
All indications are that the generals, unless pushed by their main patrons in Beijing, will as in the past ignore international calls for Suu Kyi's release and genuine political change. "They have completely ignored all international concerns, and gone on with their devastating, shattering repression of all dissent, with extremely heavy sentences being handed down for the crimes of democratic protest," said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN's former special rapporteur on human rights to Myanmar.
Than Shwe is believed to be waiting for the trial's verdict to further marginalize Suu Kyi and her NLD political party before announcing plans to transfer power to a civilian administration which would oversee next year's elections, say some analysts and regime insiders. "The whole country will really be surprised to see how power is handed over," Than Shwe reportedly told a high-ranking visiting foreign official according to a source familiar with the meeting.
Myanmar military sources confirm that the creation of an interim government is the next step in the junta's roadmap towards "discipline democracy". In an apparent move in that direction, all government ministries have been ordered to complete all of their outstanding work by the end of August, including the preparation of statistical information. Aung Thaung, Minister of Industry-1 and a close confidante to Than Shwe, recently told his deputies that there would soon be a new government and that he may no longer be a minister.
"According to Than Shwe's plans, all the current ministers will have to resign if they are to join a political party and fight the forthcoming elections," said the Thailand-based independent Burmese academic Win Min. So far, he says, there have been no hints as to who will make up the interim administration. Myanmar-based diplomats are skeptical that any move towards a civilian interim administration would be mostly cosmetic and still be controlled by the military. "There have been abundant signals that the roadmap is not an inclusive process and the referendum [in May last year] dispelled any remaining doubts," said Pinheiro. "This is a hyper-flawed process that will not lead anywhere - it's simply a consolidation of the military's control of the state."
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmarfor the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.