Commentary: The brief charade of an open trial

Francis Wade

May 21, 2009 (DVB), Yesterday, as diplomats and journalists caught a rare glimpse into the notoriously secretive Burmese judicial system, there was the briefest glimmer of hope that international pressure had finally worked its way to the heart of Burma's ruling junta.

With growing numbers of world leaders, including the normally reluctant Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc, adding their voices to calls for an open and fair trial for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it seemed the generals' stubbornness had momentarily wavered.

In a surprise announcement yesterday, 10 journalists from both domestic and international agencies were allowed to enter Insein prison, accompanied by 30 foreign ambassadors. To add a further lick of paint, three ambassadors were then allowed to meet with Suu Kyi in person following the close of hearings.

Few outsiders are permitted to enter such bastions of Burmese military autocracy as Insein prison, let alone witness the trial of such a high-profile political prisoner in Burma. Newspapers across the world tentatively heralded what they saw as the results of mounting pressure on the regime, which had thus far brushed off repeated accusations of a "bogus" trial and a "mockery" of judicial law and kept the door firmly shut.

Yet one of the diplomats allowed inside the courtroom, Britain's Mark Canning, took no time in quashing expectations.

"The access we had today was welcome, but doesn’t change the fundamental reality," he told the BBC yesterday.

"All the paraphernalia of the courtroom was there, the judges, the prosecution, the defense. But I think this is a story where the conclusion is already scripted."

And the feedback received from yesterday's observers would confirm this. Most of the 30 diplomats who observed the hour-long hearing were left twiddling their thumbs, with no-one present to translate what was being said. Only the US consuls were given language aid, while the Chinese, Japanese and North Korean officials had a basic grasp of the Burmese language. That left 25 forced to accept that they had fallen for the generals' tricks. While their appearance no doubt gave the slightest of cosmetic lifts to the trial, the substance of their presence could only benefit those behind the controls.

According to reporters, Yettaw looked nervous as he sat alone in the courtroom. Suu Kyi on the other hand remained composed, the superficiality and futility of the situation all too familiar. At the close of hearings she thanked the observers for attending, and hoped that they would meet "in better days".

Then came the next act in the generals' diplomatic performance. Suu Kyi was ushered out at the close of court and into the company of three of the diplomats. That those chosen were from Russia, Thailand and Singapore, three of the handful of countries that remain close to the regime, signals the extent that Burma will go to answer to its critics.

A Thai foreign ministry official said on Tuesday that it "will not use strong measures or economic sanctions against [Burma] because it is not an appropriate resolution for the current problem", despite expressing "grave concern" for Suu Kyi's situation. In other words it will go no further than rhetorical condemnation: water off a duck's back for the junta.

Singapore have been slightly more venomous in their condemnation of the trial, expressing "dismay" and warning of a setback to Burma's national reconciliation, but as a key member of ASEAN, and therefore subject to its policy of non-interference epitomized by Thailand's stance, it is unlikely to go further.

What must have been the ultimate kick in the teeth for Suu Kyi was the presence of Russia, one of Burma's key allies and leading supplier of military equipment to those holding her in detention. The technology used by the government to monitor and charge members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party is provided largely by Russia. Indeed, many government intelligence officials are graduates in Defense Electronic Technology at the Moscow Aviation Institute.

Little is known of the talks, and nothing seems to have been achieved. After this rare fling with the outside world, Suu Kyi, her two caretakers, and the US citizen John Yettaw are back behind closed doors, the gates to Insein once again barred.

One can safely assume that the conclusion of the trial is foregone: indeed the bulk of the script for this episode was written long before Yettaw arrived on the scene, decades ago when Suu Kyi channeled Burma's discontent with military rule right to the voting booths. The junta will have found a way to keep her behind bars – the threat of not doing so too great for the paranoid generals – but Yettaw provided a perfectly tangible excuse, whether legitimate or not, to bring her to court.

A renowned former political prisoner at Insein and pivotal member of the NLD, Win Tin, summarised the charade that this trial has already, all too predictably, turned out to be.

"This [the diplomats allowed into the courtroom] doesn't mean the trial has been transformed to be free and fair," he said.

"This is merely a thing the government does similar to when they invite foreign diplomats to events where they destroy confiscated drugs.

"It's a gesture to convince them they are doing things properly."

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