The Eerie Silence In Rangoon


Last night, as rallies and candle-lit vigils were held around the world protesting the extension of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s home detention for another 18 months, life went on apparently as usual on the streets of Burma’s former capital Rangoon.

Although the secret police arrested about 20 people demonstrating outside the courthouse after the sentence was announced, there was no repeat of the popular uprising that captivated the world’s attention in late 2007.

Perhaps the court result was inevitable. Perhaps the junta had prepared a crackdown in the event of civil unrest. Whatever the case, tea shops across Rangoon and beyond acted as forums for hushed dissent.

Burma’s teashops are meeting-places, a social space where trusted friends share gossip and news of their country. Zaw Win, an artist in Rangoon, has fond memories of the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007 but yesterday, like most other Burmese, he could do little more than express his angst over sweet Burmese tea.

"We are very angry," he says, "but what can we do? I want to express this feeling but I am afraid of being arrested. The sentencing of the Lady [the name given to Suu Kyi by the Burmese people]is Burma’s shame."

Suu Kyi’s US-based lawyer Jared Genser described the sentence as "a pre-ordained conclusion" to the charge she was facing under the "Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements", brought by Burma’s junta after an uninvited visit from 54-year-old US citizen John Yettaw, who gained access to her house by swimming across the adjacent lake.

The trial, condemned internationally from its beginnings in mid-May through to its conclusion on Tuesday, was not without its moments of concern for the paranoid regime.

The collapse of Danok pagoda in early June killed as many as 20 construction workers. In such a highly superstitious country, the symbolism of this event was far greater than the human loss. The collapse, as a result of reconstruction work financed by ruling Senior General Than Shwe, was seen by many Burmese as a sign that the generals may be pushing their luck.

The State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) state-run newspaper the New Light of Myanmar, didn’t cover that story, but it did put the Suu Kyi sentence on its front page.

It may be asked what threat the frail 64-year-old continues to present to one of the world’s most ruthless military regimes, but the announcement last year of elections in 2010 and her popularity among many of Burma’s 55 million people is clearly an issue for Burma’s top brass.

"I believe she is deeply feared by the junta, despite being a petite 5 feet tall and some 100 pounds, because she and her allies won more than 80 per cent of the seats in the parliament in the 1990 elections," wrote Genser in an online Q and A session in the Washington Post.

The election next year aims to consolidate military rule in the form of a "democratically elected" parliament — democratic except for the 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military indefinitely.

Adopting a softer tone than usual, the SPDC said that "for the sake of the rule of law" they were forced to punish Suu Kyi over the John Yettaw trespass, but reduced the sentence she was given in a thinly veiled attempt to show a more generous side.

And while the people may be listening, there’s no reason to believe that they feel any more affection for the junta as a result. "Taxi drivers in Rangoon are actually listening to the Government radio channels at the moment," said Rangoon-based journalist Kyaw Kyaw. "Very few people listen to the government news, they usually listen to the BBC or VOA short wave broadcasts but that’s the nature of this trial — the verdict is in effect a government announcement. Many people feel that the sentence reduced to 18 months by the ‘generous’ actions of Senior General Than Shwe is a good result, considering."

A "good result" in terms of no forced labour perhaps, but the crafty junta may have been able to kill two birds with one stone in their attempts to deny Suu Kyi a political future in Burma.

"Her previous home detention had a political focus, she was never given criminal status," explained Bo Gyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) in Mae Sot, Thailand.

"It has always been political, however, the intrusion of her home by Yettaw has seen her charged criminally, meaning that under last year’s approved constitution she won’t be able to stand for election next year or anytime in the future."

"The junta is serious about this election process and serious about keeping her locked out. We saw them rush through the referendum in the wake of Cyclone Nargis despite the suffering of their people in order to keep their timeframe. Any belief that the regime has acted ‘generously’ is just foolish."

Perhaps most baffling in this case is just what Yettaw, a Vietnam veteran, was trying to achieve by visiting Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years. His actions have received severe criticism from both inside and outside the Suu Kyi circle. There is still a great deal of scepticism and suspicion over the details surrounding the incident.

Claiming that he had a premonition of her imminent assassination and had therefore swum across Inya Lake with homemade paddles to warn her, Yettaw has certainly not helped Suu Kyi’s situation. Indeed, his incursion into the heavily secured villa just days before her previous home detention order was set to end, provided the junta with a convenient pretext for the judicial farce that has followed.

Heavily guarded by military personnel at all times, Suu Kyi’s house in the Golden Valley area of Rangoon is a fortified prison within the leafy suburb that houses much of the city’s foreign community and the Burmese elite.

According to Bo Gyi, who met Yettaw before the incident, it is hard to imagine how such an act could have been successful. "If he had told me he was going to swim to her house I would have told him he was dreaming," he says.

"When he came to the AAPP offices he seemed very emotional and superstitious. He had a desire to ask me about my own experiences of torture as a political prisoner, but as an individual I think most people didn’t see much political ambition [in Yettaw].

"That’s why we were shocked when we heard the news of his action and alarmed at the consequences it would bring. But we are also surprised that he actually managed to enter Suu Kyi’s house. This is not possible."

Charged with offences including "swimming in a non-swimming area", his illegal visit to Suu Kyi’s home has earned Yettaw a sentence of seven years hard labour.

With health complications and the dubious honour of being the only Westerner among Burma’s 2200 political prisoners, it is hard to see what reaction his jailing will have abroad. Unlike the US journalists released recently from Burma’s fellow pariah state North Korea, Yettaw is not likely to have the support of a former president.

Nonetheless it is hard to imagine that he will remain in Rangoon’s Insein prison for too long. "The Burmese Government won’t want a dead American on their hands," says Kyaw Kyaw, "especially one who has been caught up in what is perceived as a political case outside the country. I imagine he’ll be repatriated to America after serving somewhere under one year."

With Burma yet again in the international spotlight, strong calls for action have been heard across the globe. A global arms embargo and more targeted sanctions have already been suggested.

Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner said in the Senate on Wednesday that "Australia supports these efforts to seek a UN Security Council mandated arms embargo on Burma. Australia agrees that arms should not be supplied to the Burmese regime, which of course has demonstrated its willingness to use force against the civilian population."

With Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent commitment to resuming Radio Australia broadcasts into Burma on request from Suu Kyi, and with nation-wide concern in this country over Burma’s alleged nuclear ambitions, it seems Australia is prepared to join with the international community in preparing to tackle the Burmese regime more aggressively.

While some observers have suggested that delays in concluding the trial were a sign that the international community is already having an impact on the Burmese generals, the biggest obstacle in bringing pressure to bear on the junta remains the support it enjoys from China. Despite global outrage at the Suu Kyi sentence, the Chinese have made it clear they are not prepared to act against the junta in the UN Security Council yet. "International society should fully respect Myanmar’s judicial sovereignty," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

Meanwhile in Burma itself, beneath the eerie political silence that hangs over Rangoon’s streets, such diplomatic manoeuvres seem a long way away, as the people quietly discuss the return of "the Lady" to home detention and what that will mean for the "election" next year.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.