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Severity masks weakness

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

BANGKOK

It must be one of literary history's deep ironies. George Orwell spent some of his formative years serving king and empire as a colonial policeman in resource-laden Burma, which, of all the crown's far-flung jewels, he regarded as the one most likely to prosper after independence.

Instead, the erstwhile "rice-bowl of Asia" has gone on to become a living embodiment of Orwell's magnum opus, "1984." The absurd dystopia that is modern-day "Myanmar" -- the name applied to Burma by its military rulers -- lives up to its "truth is stranger than fiction" credentials today.

A military court declared pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest, after American John Yettaw swam across the lake beside Mrs. Suu Kyi's Rangoon home to see her. Mr. Yettaw was arrested by the Burmese police after he swam back, and received a seven-year jail term for his part in the bizarre incident.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's sentence was three years in prison with hard labor, but in a display of sardonic faux magnanimity, the regime commuted her sentence to a mere additional 18 months house arrest.

This will keep her under lock and key until after next year's national elections. The elections are already controversial, with 25 percent of seats reserved for the ruling military, more than 2,000 opposition politicians and dissidents in jail, and many others in exile.

All this completely undermines any prospect of a free, fair and competitive vote, which the United States, the European Union, some neighboring Southeast Asian states and the United Nations Security Council have all requested.

Mrs. Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy won 1990 elections, but then saw that result promptly dismissed by the ruling military. She was barred from formal participation in the elections by a 2008 constitutional sleight-of-pen that focused on her British husband. However, prior to the intervention of Mr. Yettaw, Mrs. Suu Kyi was due for imminent release.

Though not actually running for election, the prospect of her presence in public -- even during a tightly managed election -- must have struck the superstitious junta as ominous, so soon after the 2007 Saffron protests that elicited such a harsh crackdown by the military rulers.

What happens next? Press releases from Burmese opposition groups, nongovernmental organizations and exiles were in e-mail inboxes within minutes of the verdict, seeking a U.N. Security Council arms embargo on the junta. Not in time perhaps, given that the junta keeps the bulk of Burma's 50 million people in abject poverty, while spending a good chunk of the billions of dollars in oil, gas, gems and hardwood revenues on Southeast Asia's largest standing army.

Recent allegations that the junta has been collaborating with the proliferator-par-excellence in North Korea on possible nuclear technology might also add to the urgency.

Targeted U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions are already in place, focusing on the elites and regime cronies.

Some argue that these merely push the junta into the arms of less scrupulous entities, such as China, which is investing in hydroelectric power in Burma and is building a dual port and pipeline structure from the Burmese coast, across the country and into western China, which will enable Beijing to avoid having to ship some of its oil imports from Africa and the Middle East though the contested Straits of Malacca.

India and South Korea are both investing in Burma, or seeking to, and the junta's biggest trade partner is neighbor Thailand, which imports Burmese gas. Singapore is another important commercial ally. Junta members and associates are thought to use financial and banking services elsewhere among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Western options closed by sanctions.

Will this verdict stretch patience, even in Beijing and across ASEAN? In May, the U.N. Security Council -- China included -- voted for a resolution seeking Mrs. Suu Kyi's release after the Yettaw incident. In recent weeks, ASEAN states have joined that clamor, with Indonesia and the Philippines more vocal than the rest of ASEAN.

Today, the Malaysian foreign minister cited ASEAN "disappointment" with its errant member-state, and said that a regional meeting was needed to discuss the issue.

Given that the junta is defying a U.N. Security Council resolution, that seems a tepid response. ASEAN has a seemingly limitless capacity to tolerate embarrassing behavior by its most troublesome member. The grouping recently established a new human rights body, but one which lacks any teeth to punish those in breach of human rights.

If decisive action is left to ASEAN, it seems highly implausible that the junta will suffer any real consequences for its blatant and entirely characteristic disregard of the rest of the world. Whether a belated international arms embargo, if it comes about, makes any difference either remains to be seen.

The junta apparently seeks some legitimacy for its 2010 election, to tell the Burmese people that some sort of managed transition to a more prosperous yet still authoritarian polity is feasible. However, without Mrs. Suu Kyi, this is but the realization of another classic Orwellian passage: "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Simon Roughneen is a journalist based in Southeast Asia.