Allies for Aung San Suu Kyi

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

THE MILITARY junta's decision Tuesday to extend for another 18 months the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's rightful ruler, came as no surprise. She frightens Gen. Than Shwe and his cronies. No doubt they cannot understand her popularity, humility or moral courage. So they keep her locked up, as they have for most of the years since her democratic party won, and was cheated out of, an overwhelming electoral victory in 1990.

Nor was it a surprise that "today's unjust decision," as President Obama called it, met with near-universal condemnation. Burma's democratic neighbors in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and the Philippines; the European Union and Australia; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and an august collection of those who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have won the Nobel Peace Prize -- all urged the junta to free her. Most pointed out that more than 2,000 other political prisoners, many suffering in appalling conditions, also should be freed.

But what then, after the deploring and condemning? All of Burma's 50 million people are in reality political prisoners, on a dismal par with the people of North Korea and few other nations on Earth. The brutality and corruption of their military leaders, who suck 40 percent of the government's budget into the army and squander much of the rest on lavish and bizarrely isolated lifestyles, have reduced a once-prosperous nation to a poverty level below that of Malawi or Afghanistan. The armed forces routinely wage war against ethnic groups, with rape and forced labor among the favored weapons. Do the leaders of other nations, who a few years back puffed out their chests and took upon themselves the "responsibility to protect" the vulnerable populations of the world, have any response?

There are measures that could be tried: coordinated financial sanctions aimed at the leaders who profit from their compatriots' misery, for example, or a real arms embargo -- particularly apt given recent reports of Burmese cooperation with North Korea in nuclear affairs. A May report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, commissioned by eminent former judges such as Patricia Wald of the United States and Richard Goldstone of South Africa, compellingly laid out sufficient evidence of the junta's crimes against humanity to justify a U.N. Security Council Commission of Inquiry that could lead to charges in the International Criminal Court. Russia and China, defenders of despots, would be obstacles, but perhaps not insuperable ones, if the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe made this a priority.

And where is the United States? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced early in her tenure a review of U.S. policy toward Burma. While the sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi was taking place, that review was suspended, leaving the administration surprisingly unready to respond to Tuesday's events. The review will be resumed now -- with, we would hope, a sense of urgency that has been wanting so far.

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