Justice Miscarried: Bad Omen for Burma’s New Constitution?
By Priscilla Clapp

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on August 16, 2009.)

HONOLULU (August 17) – After a three-month trial, Burma’s democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced by a court in Rangoon to another 18 months of house arrest after already serving some 14 years in detention since 1989. In fact, the court’s formal sentence was three years at hard labor for allowing an uninvited intruder to stay overnight at her compound, where she was being held in detention. But the country’s top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, in an uncharacteristic gesture of compassion, commuted the sentence to 18 months of house arrest with the possibility of early release for good behavior.

The trial was, of course, a sham intended merely to assure that Aung San Suu Kyi would be under lock and key during the period of the 2010 elections and the formation of a new civilian-led but military-controlled parliamentary government. Thus, once charges were served against her, it was a foregone conclusion that she would be sentenced.

Aside from the long-suffering heroine herself, the unsung heroes in this drama are her brave and highly competent lawyers. At their own peril, they exposed the regime’s flagrant disregard for the law, arguing, in essence, that by citing a defunct 1974 constitution in order to charge Aung San Suu Kyi, the regime was disregarding the new 2008 constitution that they themselves had already declared to be the law of the land and the basis for transition to “disciplined democracy.” Thus, because the arguments in her defense were made public, the generals have been caught with their legal pants down in the eyes of their own population and the world.

In other politically inspired trials in Rangoon, which did not occur under such intense international scrutiny, defense lawyers have been summarily jailed mid-trial for “contempt of court” for simply defending their clients. We can only hope the regime does not decide to punish these lawyers for doing their job well, because they are already facing another legal battle with Aung San Suu Kyi’s relatives, who – presumably with the support of the generals – are laying claim to her house and property.

The real losers in this drama are Burma’s military leaders, and not Aung San Suu Kyi, because the trial and its outcome, despite the top general’s leniency, are viewed by the international community as a miscarriage of justice, a blatant disregard for the rule of law, and a gratuitous insult to an innocent person who has done nothing but stand up for the principles of democracy, good governance, and respect for universal human rights. The trial has been an embarrassment to their Asian neighbors, who have tried for years to give the generals the benefit of the doubt. And it has brought profound discredit to the new constitution and the coming elections by demonstrating that the generals will nonetheless continue to manipulate the law to suit their own purposes.

Perhaps the silver lining is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s seemingly never-ending detention finally has a definitive time limit with a promise of early release. Her personal doctor will now be allowed to attend to her again, and her two female companions, who were tried and sentenced with her, will also be returned to her compound. The terms of her detention have never been so clearly spelled out in the past, so the new sentence will ultimately serve as a test of the integrity of Burma’s future government and a clear indication of whether its elected leaders will have the courage to practice real democracy.

Priscilla Clapp is a former U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Rangoon and author of several East-West Center reports on Burma policy .


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