Torture by law

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

Aung San Suu Kyi addressing a rally in Arakan State in Myanmar in this picture believed to be taken in December 2002.-AFP

Aung San Suu Kyi addressing a rally in Arakan State in Myanmar in this picture believed to be taken in December 2002.-AFP

IF there be soft persecution, Myanmars military rulers seem adept at subjecting the celebrated democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi to that form of state policy. This alone can explain the saga or her continuing detention on one charge or another despite her fidelity to the path of peaceful protest.

It is often said of the junta that it has not resorted to brutish methods against the Nobel Peace laureate. Cited as a contrast in this situation are the notorious practices that the United States has allowed to take place at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Ghraib in recent times. Viewed in this skewed perspective, Suu Kyis last phase of house arrest in Yangon, which ended on May 27, and her being lodged in a two-storey house during a new trial can be seen as softer persecution.

As this is written, during a pause in the new trial, Myanmars apex court has set a date, June 24, to hear a petition on the number of defence witnesses that a lower court could hear. This procedural issue was not without political significance. Myanmars junta, formally known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was keen to send a message to the international community. The SPDC wanted the world to know that due legal process was being followed in the new case against the 64-year-old Suu Kyi, frail in physique but resolute in spirit.

The junta did not, of course, seek to put any kind of political gloss over the strange charge against her. Not only that. A Myanmarese Minister, while speaking at the Asian Security Summit in Singapore on May 31, digressed to portray the bizarre charge as a serious case of crime against the state. The summit was organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Surprisingly, the Ministers tirade against Suu Kyi went unchallenged by the summit participants. Asked about this, the institute indicated that its politically neutral policy was to provide a platform for the representatives of different states.

The crux of the charge against Suu Kyi is that she, while still under house arrest in early May, violated the terms under which she was granted that facility rather than confinement in a jail. Outwardly, such a charge does not stretch the limits of credibility. However, the specific offence, as alleged, does.

She is said to have sheltered a male American intruder for two days, without notifying the authorities at the first opportunity so that he could have been caught instantly. The intruder is said to have swam to her lakeside house. There is a mismatch between the basis of the charge and the fact that her house was under constant surveillance of the juntas security and intelligence agencies.

This fundamental flaw was pointed out by a former Secretary-General of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the sidelines of the recent Singapore conference. Inexplicable was how the American national could indeed make it to Suu Kyis house totally undetected as he took some time to swim across the adjacent lake.

Suu Kyis defence lawyers, Nyan Win and Kyi Win, in their initial responses to this correspondent over the telephone from Yangon, indicated that she, as a good-natured leader, might have shown some hospitality to a person who seemed exhausted after a long swim. However, the lawyers emphasised that she had nothing to do with the intruder whom she did not invite at all. In any case, they said, she expressed absolute willingness to face the bizarre charge. Her reasoning was that the junta would otherwise harass and might even launch a crackdown against her followers in the National League for Democracy (NLD).

In those circumstances, she was shifted to a detention house on the premises of the high-security Insein Prison, in the same city. The detention house is, however, located outside the jail. She was taken to this place even before the expiry of her house arrest, which could not be extended any further under the juntas own laws.

On June 19, Suu Kyi marked her 64th birthday at this new detention house within the confines of which she was allowed free movement under the watchful eyes of male and female security personnel. On that day, she was allowed to pray in Buddhist style. In a related ceremony, she offered Indian biriyani, in a customary practice, to the security personnel who generally occupied one floor, leaving the other storey for her privacy. Some NLD leaders sent across birthday cakes to her but were not allowed to visit.

This episode, as narrated over the telephone by Nyan Win, who is also the NLD spokesman, does bring into focus two aspects of the juntas attitude towards Suu Kyi. One, a non-political posture of some courtesy towards her, and the other, a hostile political agenda against her.

The little courtesy part relates to the fact that she was allowed at all to mark her birthday through unhindered prayers and customary offerings to the custodial security personnel. In striking contrast, the agenda of hostility was writ all over the refusal by the junta to let her receive political associates on her birthday.

This agenda becomes all the more emphatic, given two legal facts. On her 64th birthday, Suu Kyi was technically free because her last house arrest had come to an end. It is a widely chronicled fact that she has served prolonged detentions of one kind or another for over 13 years in less than two decades since she led the NLD to a landslide electoral victory under the frightened eyes of the military rulers.

The other fact is that she was only under trial in a new case and not a convict in the legal lexicon of the present junta. She was of course being held on a charge with no room for bail. Yet, political hostility alone can explain the juntas refusal to let her savour technical freedom at least on her latest birthday.

Also obvious to long-time Myanmar watchers is the possibility that the SPDC is now seeking, under the cover of a legal process, to keep Suu Kyi out of the public domain during the democracy-restoring elections promised for next year. The promised poll forms a critical part of the juntas democracy road map.

The SPDCs hostility towards the chief leader of the NLD becomes all the more glaring on another count. Suu Kyis late husband was a foreigner, and for that reason she is barred from contesting under Myanmars new Constitution. This statute was approved in a referendum that the SPDC hustled through amid the recent devastation by Cyclone Nargis. Given Suu Kyis electoral ineligibility, it requires no clairvoyance to see the utter hostility behind the SPDCs latest move to keep her out of the political space altogether at the time of the promised poll. The junta does not want her personally to rally the democratic forces in the public domain.

Will the SPDC now move against other opposition forces, too, such as the Buddhist monks who unsuccessfully staged an uprising in 2007? And, do military dictatorships all over the world have naked faces that cannot even be masked?

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment