Suu Kyi and American Convicted By Burmese Court
Tuesday, August 11, 2009; 1:30 PM
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced Tuesday to an additional 18 months under house arrest on charges of breaching the terms of her previous incarceration by harboring an American tourist who swam across a lake bordering her villa and entered her heavily guarded property uninvited.
Jared Genser, attorney for Suu Kyi, was online Tuesday, Aug. 11, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss the case and the widespread international reaction from Great Britain, France, the European community, and the U.S.
Jared Genser: Jared Genser: Hi everyone. I'm happy to be here. I'm a human rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., and serve a international counsel to Aung San Suu Kyi. My NGO, Freedom Now (www.freedom-now.org) was retained by a member of her family to represent her in mid-2006. In that context we have secured two judgments from the UN that her ongoing periods of house arrest are in violation of international law, and just filed a third petition today in response to her most recent conviction and sentence. And we have also engaged in substantial political and public relations advocacy on her behalf as well. I'm happy to answer any and all Burma-related questions.
NW D.C.: What advice would you give to someone wanting to travel to Burma? I know various people who want to do day trips from Thailand, plus a couple government types who want to do semi-official 'missions' to build bridges with counterpart agencies in Burma. Would you consider this sinful, or not? Or depends on how its done?
Jared Genser: Well, the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party) and other pro-democracy ethnic groups have discouraged tourism, particularly tourism for the sake of merely seeing the sites. My personal view is that if one is to go, they need to go with eyes wide open and with an interest in learning about the country and people. There are also ways to go to minimize expenditures that go into the pockets of the regime (e.g., staying at small guest houses rather than large government-run hotels). As for building bridges, I'm personally all for it -- and for all the humanitarian aid we can get into Burma. But one should work exclusively with international and local NGOs. If you work with the government, as has been widely reported, you get into a dicey balancing act where you have to judge whether the aid going in to people in need outweighs the aid skimmed off for the junta. I think that is a virtually impossible exercise.
Arlington, Va.: Short of an invasion (which we know isn't going to happen) what can really be done from the outside? We have tried sanctions. We have tried all sorts of condemnations. Are the Chinese the biggest key/obstacle? Do the people inside Burma need to become so totally desperate that millions of them rise up? It all seems to hopeless. I saw Burma VJ the other night at then the Current TV report Laura Ling did on Burma over the weekend. It's so sad. Will nothing happen until Than Shwe and the rest die off? Is the next generation of dictators equally bad? Any chance of a coup from the lower ranks of the military?
Jared Genser: Bertil Linter, a Swedish journalist and lifelong Burma watcher and reporter recently published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making that exact point. At the end of the day, the country is comprised of 47 million Burmese people who need to shape their own destiny. That said, Aung San Suu Kyi's political party and its ethnic group allies won 80%+ of the seats in the parliament in 1990 and have never been allowed to take office. Should the international community do nothing? We know what happens if we do nothing. I believe that we do have an obligation to stand in solidarity with the Burmese people who have asked for the support of the international community. There are no clear and easy answers. Engagement has been tried for 20 years, with 40+ visits of UN envoys, rapporteurs, and the Secretary-General. That has yielded little progress. Sanctions have been tried, but frankly only in a serious way since 2003, primarily by the US, but since 2007 more seriously by the EU, Canada, and Australia. But the bulk of trade comes from China, India, and ASEAN member states. As for your other questions, let me try to come back to them later. You asked a whole long list of difficult ones!
Arlington, Va.: Doesn't keeping The Lady locked up just increase her power and moral authority? I wonder why, if they fear her so much, the junta allows her to live at all.
Jared Genser: I believe she is deeply feared by the junta, despite being a petite 5' tall and some 100 pounds, because she and her allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in the parliament in the 1990 elections, when the junta actually believed they would win in a landslide. Adding to her appeal is that her father is rightly viewed in Burma as the key actor who secured the country's freedom from British colonial rule, and was sadly assassinated right before Burma's independence in 1948. I agree that keeping her locked up as the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate only increases curiosity about her, her story, her situation, and that of her people. On the other hand, when she has been out of house arrest and been able to travel, tens of thousands of people have turned out at numerous stops merely to get a glimpse of her. This kind of mass movement that she can swiftly generate is what they fear most and the generals have watched the fall of the former Soviet satellites, color revolutions, etc. As for killing her, they actually tried that in 2003 -- with a government-sponsored mob in Depayin, which resulted in the murder of 70 of her supporters in her convey. She escaped with minor injuries. I don't think they've viewed killing her directly as a real option given the outcry that would result and the fact that their allies in the UN Security Council would likely have to stand aside in light of that outrage to allow serious action to be taken against them.
Fairfax, Va.: How much influence will the U.N. judgments wield in the possibility of her release?
Jared Genser: Well, on the one hand, you might think not much at all. Indeed, there is no enforcement mechanism other than moral suasion, combined with political and public relations advocacy. On the other hand, despite being impervious in some ways to international pressure, the junta, and Gen. Than Shwe in particular, severely dislikes international criticism of its actions. Interestingly, the junta has repeatedly responded to our UN submissions (doing so is optional but encouraged) and has publicly defended itself in the government-published New Light of Myanmar. Our most recent UN judgment, which we released in March 2009, was actually pretty extraordinary, because it found that the junta was violating not only international law, but its own law too. It concluded that the junta could only detain her for up to five years under house arrest and that they had illegally detained her for a sixth year. The junta strenuously objected to this UN decision as interference in their internal affairs. But this was likely, at least in part, what prompted its need to find an alternative rationale (albeit tenuous) for continuing to detain her. Even if the American swimmer John Yettaw hadn't shown up on the scene, I believe there would have been some other pretextual excuse for finding a reason to keep her in custody, at least through the junta's 2010 scheduled elections that are designed to solidify their military rule.
Washington, D.C.: "Should the international community do nothing?"
Why not, it's the tradition. North Korea, Iran, Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kurdistan, Tibet, etc.
It goes on and on. As long as China has a veto on the U.N. Security Council it isn't going to happen.
Jared Genser: Well, that is one approach. Having heard first-hand stories of the suffering of countless Burmese people, I personally have felt compelled to do what I can. You are correct that the UN Security Council is not exactly a bastion of vigorous action on a number of complex conflicts in the world. But at the same time, it is worth noting that all members of the P5 (China, Russia, US, UK, and France), who all retain a veto right, are regularly reassessing their strategic interests in the Security Council and also engaged in horse-trading on issues of greatest concern to them. Thus, we've seen that China, which initially strongly objected to even having Burma placed on the Security Council agenda, ultimately went along with two Presidential statements and a press statement from the Security Council which, among other things, called for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, urged open access for humanitarian aid, and urged meaningful dialogue leading to national reconciliation in the country. Has that solved the problem. Of course not. But the fact that China went from objecting to it being on the agenda at all to begrudgingly supporting these kinds of actions suggest their calculus can change -- such as what happened after the junta gunned down a dozen protestors in 2007 after the monks and activists conducted democratic marches. China even supported a referral of Sudan for investigation to the International Criminal Court despite many arguing for years it would never allow it to happen. Again, these are all small incremental steps. But unless the junta collapses overnight, that is about the best we have to work with.
Washington, D.C.: How did you become her attorney?
Jared Genser: In 2005, I led a team producing a report entitled "Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma" for Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu. We then worked with them in lobbying to get Burma on the UN Security Council agenda for the first time, which happened in 2006. I had actually first gotten involved in Burma back in 2000, when I helped secure the release of a British national James Mawdsley who received a 17 year prison sentence in the country for handing out pro-democracy leaflets. I suppose that with the increasing attention that I got for these activities led to my coming to the notice of her family. And a member of her family asked me in 2006 to represent her.
Arlington, Va.: How close do you think the junta was to collapse during the 2007 protests? They seemed to really be floundering for many days while the protests built. I think everyone expected a crackdown sooner than it happened. In the end they showed little restraint when killing and imprisoning the monks. There were reports at the time that Than Shwe fled or that the lower ranks of the military were ready to mutiny, but I don't know if that was just propaganda from the opposition or if that was anywhere close to happening.
Jared Genser: It is personally quite hard for me to say because I don't speak Burmese and the information that I got, like yours, has been all second-hand. That said, as the saying goes, the greatest wounds are self-inflicted. The massive increase (5-fold) in fuel prices imposed without warning by the junta (including gas, kerosine, etc) hit every Burmese person with limited means and made cooking their daily rice inordinately expensive. Given the people of the country also support the monks and temples and especially because those who were poorer kept more of their own money for basic needs, the support for the monks swiftly dried up. When combining the suffering of the starving people with the broad impact on the overall population, the monks felt compelled to stand up and say that the actions of the junta conflicted with their alleged Buddhist values. There is no doubt the junta was deeply afraid of seeing their own color revolution develop and once the protests grew beyond what they judged was an acceptable size, they felt compelled to violently crack down. I, too, heard reports of many of the soldiers refusing to shoot the monks and differences among generals about how vicious they were willing to be with the Burmese people. But at the end of the day, the soldiers were more afraid of the generals than the common people so again, sadly, the peaceful uprising was snuffed out by violence.
Annandale, Va.: Who is propping up the junta?
Jared Genser: Interestingly, Burma is rich in natural resources -- especially oil/gas, timber, and gemstones. The junta has numerous state-owned enterprises that manage investments in these areas. Currently the biggest investors in the country are China, India, Thailand, Singapore, and several other ASEAN countries. Despite having some $5B in cash reserves currently hidden on the books (see the fascinating op-ed by Australian economist Sean Turnell in the Wall Street Journal from a week or two ago) and some $2-3B a year in oil/gas revenues, the country remains one of the most impoverished in SE Asia. This is because the junta spends (roughly) 25 percent of its GDP on the military and some 2 percent on health and education combined. Ironically, the junta pleads poverty with the international community and has been asking for $10B in aid after Cyclone Nargis. Yet few in the international community seem to demand that the junta begin to spend its own resources to promote the country's development. Ultimately, what enables the junta to remain in power are the weapons sold to it by China, but there are plenty of companies and countries prepared to invest in Burma, despite its appearance right at the bottom (something like 189 out of 190 on Transparency International's list of most corrupt countries).
Washington, D.C.: Is she angry at the American who imposed on her and added 18 months to her sentence? Or was it inevitable that something would come up that the government would use to keep her in prison. If he didn't show up, certainly they would have found another way to keep her detained, no?
Jared Genser: My understanding is that she is not angry but rather understands full well that her detention has never had anything to do with whatever the most recent set of charges were, but rather are because of her popularity with the people and the 1990 election results.
Arlington, Va.: Are there any other opposition leaders on the horizon inside Burma? Obviously she can't live forever. We know the election will be rigged next year but is there anyone who will run? Or will everyone just boycott?
Jared Genser: This is an ongoing challenge for the Burmese democracy movement. It is impossible to put ourselves in the shoes of those Burmese democrats inside the country. There are 2,100+ political prisoners in the country, which comprise the key leadership (and numerous levels down) of the NLD and ethnic groups. The imprisoned include elected MPs from the 1990 elections, journalists, political activists, the so-called '88 student generation which led the 1988 peaceful uprising, and countless others. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that maintaining, developing, and expanding support for the democracy movement is virtually impossible inside the country. Over the next few days a number of the Burmese umbrella groups are meeting in Jakarta to issue a unity plan for how to deal with the junta. The main umbrella group, the National Coalition of the Union of Burma is led by someone named Maung Maung. And the formal government-in-exile, which is comprised of the 1990 elected MPs, is led by Dr. Sein Win, who also happens to be Aung San Suu Kyi's first cousin. Ultimately the Burmese democracy movement inside the country has struggled to survive, and while there is an active, diverse, and engaged Diaspora community of Burmese living in exile, achieving unity requires substantial ongoing effort.
As for the elections, right now, under the Constitution that was "adopted" in the flawed referendum and without input from the democracy movement, there is no real prospect for change. This is because the Constitution provides for a military veto over decisions of the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches, excludes Aung San Suu Kyi and any former political prisoners (felons) from running for office, and precludes anyone who hasn't lived in the country for the last 20 years (e.g., was in exile) from running for office. The junta automatically gets 25 percent of the seats in the parliament and it takes an 80 percent vote to amend the Constitution. In other words, even if the NLD and their allies compete and win every available seat, they still will have no control over the government. Furthermore, the Constitution allows for the Executive to limit or even criminalize certain topics if raised in the Parliament, rendering the idea of running and speaking out an unpleasant prospect.
The only hope really is for the Constitution to be substantially amended. If that happens, the Burmese democracy movement has expressed a willingness to participate in a free and fair election.
Harrisburg. Pa.: Is there any legal appeals process? Are you still continuing to serve as the attorney? What are your plans from this point on?
Jared Genser: Her domestic lawyers are looking at possible appeals. I'm not sure it is technically possible because the sentence was commuted. But it is irrelevant anyways. The judiciary isn't independent from the junta and so like the trial itself, the conclusion of an appeal is sadly pre-ordained.
Yes, I continue to serve as her international counsel. We filed a petition today before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and will also continue political and public relations advocacy on her behalf until she is free.
Jared Genser: Thanks everyone for participating in this chat! If you want to learn more or follow our activities, you can check out Freedom Now's web site at www.freedom-now.org. Thanks for your interest!
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