Verdict Reveals Burmese Regime Unbowed by Pressure

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 11, 2009; 11:14 AM

BANGKOK, Aug. 11 -- The decision by the generals who run Burma to extend Aung San Suu Kyi's incarceration by 18 months has abruptly snuffed out the dim hope that the regime was becoming more sensitive to international pressure for democratic reform.

The verdict was widely expected: Governments and international rights organizations came out with prepared condemnations minutes after the verdict was announced.

But it has illustrated the West's inability to change the direction of the Burmese government and the paucity of its arsenal when it comes to punishing repressive regimes.

In a short closing statement at her trial, Suu Kyi said that such a verdict would condemn the authorities as much as her and her companions.

"The court will pronounce on the innocence or guilt of a few individuals. The verdict itself will constitute a judgment on the whole of the law, justice and constitutionalism in our country," she said.

Before Suu Kyi's arrest, there was growing international support for the ideas that isolating the regime with sanctions had failed to persuade the generals to improve democratic freedom or human rights and that some form of diplomatic and commercial reengagement might be more effective.

However, Tuesday's verdict appeared likely to give new ammunition to the highly vocal international pro-sanctions lobby, making it harder for governments to explore a more nuanced approach.

The international community also is likely to find it difficult to toughen its stance.

"If you look at economic sanctions, our leverage is minimal. There is nothing exciting in our back pocket," said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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 elections scheduled for next year, even though the constitution written by the regime guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament.

"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 lawyer who represents Suu Kyi overseas.

Suu Kyi's supporters in her National League for Democracy say that although her freedom would be vital for a free and fair ballot, it would not be enough in itself, given the constitutional guarantee of a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military.

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