By Tim Johnston and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
BANGKOK, Aug. 11 -- Burma's military rulers on Tuesday snuffed out whatever dim hopes remained for democratic reform in their country, as a government-run court sentenced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to an additional 18 months under house arrest for hosting an American intruder who entered her heavily guarded villa uninvited.
The verdict drew swift international condemnation, with President Obama saying it violated "universal principles of human rights" and European leaders calling for new sanctions against Burma. The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session to discuss the issue.
The decision by the court at Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison essentially sidelines Burma's most popular political figure from national elections next year, and it sets the stage for a political contest that will be tilted toward government-backed candidates.
In a rare public statement at the close of the trial, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, warned her Burmese jailers that the verdict would weigh as heavily upon them as it has on her and her companions. "The court will pronounce on the innocence or guilt of a few individuals," she said. "The verdict itself will constitute a judgment on the whole of the law, justice and constitutionalism in our country."
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who recently met Burmese ruler Than Shwe to press for Suu Kyi's release, issued a statement saying that he was "deeply disappointed by the verdict," which undermines the "credibility" of the political process in Burma, also called Myanmar.
Two co-defendants in Suu Kyi's trial -- Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma, a mother and daughter who have been the democracy activist's companions and housekeepers for five years -- were also sentenced to 18 months of house arrest.
Separately, the court sentenced John W. Yettaw, the 54-year-old American who swam across a lake to get to Suu Kyi's home, to seven years in prison, including four years of hard labor.
Obama expressed concern about the fate of Yettaw, a diabetic, saying his sentence was "out of proportion with his actions."
"Today's unjust decision reminds us of the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have been denied their liberty because of their pursuit of a government that respects the will, rights and aspirations of all Burmese citizens," Obama added. "They, too, should be freed."
The toughest response came from the European Union, which vowed to impose new economic sanctions against individuals responsible for Suu Kyi's continued imprisonment. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a U.N. embargo on all arms exports to Burma, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged new restrictions on Burma's export of rubies and hardwood, two key sources of government revenue.
Even Burma's friends, including Malaysia, which was instrumental in bringing Burma into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a decade ago, expressed dismay.
The U.N. Security Council failed to reach agreement on a statement that would condemn Burma and demand that Suu Kyi, 64, be immediately released. Russia, among other countries, expressed reservations. China, Burma's closest ally on the council, insisted in the closed-door session that the council had no business interfering in Burma's courts, according to U.N. diplomats.
Suu Kyi was charged in May after Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., swam across Inya Lake, sneaked onto her property and spent the night at her home.
Yettaw, a devout Mormon who relatives say suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his service during the Vietnam War, told the court that he was acting on a vision in which he saw Suu Kyi being assassinated by terrorists.
He had tried to visit her before and had succeeded in reaching the house, but she had refused to see him and had informed the authorities once he had left. Suu Kyi said she allowed Yettaw to stay this time only because he was exhausted.
"I acted without malice simply with intent to ensure that the one concerned should not suffer any adverse consequences," she told the court in her closing statement.
Analysts say Burma's ruling junta was determined to use the case to keep Suu Kyi -- still the generals' most formidable opponent despite having spent 14 of the past 19 years under house arrest -- out of circulation ahead of the elections.
"She is not being imprisoned because an American swam to her home but because she is viewed as a strong threat to the legitimacy of this regime and its plans for next year's elections," said Jared Genser, a Washington-based lawyer who represents Suu Kyi overseas.
The court initially sentenced Suu Kyi to three years of hard labor on grounds that she illegally harbored an American tourist. But Burma's interior minister later read a statement from Than Shwe, chairman of the junta, commuting the sentence to 18 months under house arrest.
"A ripple of shock went 'round the room," said one European diplomat who attended the hearing. "We looked at these three slightly built women, one of whom uses a walking aid, and it was beyond belief." Suu Kyi's legal team said it would appeal the verdict.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.