With all deliberate delay

Francis Wade

July 31, 2009 (DVB), A collective, but all-too familiar, sigh accompanied the announcement this morning that the verdict in Burma’s trial of Aung San Suu Kyi has been postponed until mid-August.

It is a trial that has twisted and turned over the course of nearly three months, besieged by delays and digressions from the courtroom and flecked with the odd concession from the judges. It has successfully shouldered a visit by the UN Secretary General, brushed off fierce condemnation from world leaders and trampled over Burma's own domestic laws.

Given the likelihood of the outcome, the trial could have been wrapped up in a matter of days. The verdict was likely drawn up the moment John Yettaw arrived back on the shores of Lake Inya in early May, but instead the old tactic of delay has reared its head again. Seasoned observers of the Burmese legal system are used to this sort of behaviour from the junta , some may see it as a tactical manouvre, while others point to a sadistic means of further punishing Suu Kyi, with the agony of the unknown still stretching out before her.

One hopes, however, that the lady who recently passed 5,000 days in detention is inured to such practices – indeed her lawyer Nyan Win said this morning that she was "not surprised" by the decision, and reports have said she is already choosing her reading list for the likely prison sentence.

But there is another reason for delaying the decision. The junta, in its desperate attempt to justify why Suu Kyi should be kept out of sight, has scoured the Burmese political and legal landscape for any pretext that would add weight to their case. They have spent the last three months looking for loopholes in their own laws that they can exploit to maintain the status quo, even if that means doctoring the constitution they carelessly rushed through last year. That the trial was a sham in the first place is not disputed; the junta knows that Yettaw's visit was beyond Suu Kyi's control. Indeed the sight of guards merely throwing stones at Yettaw as he approached the compound shows how far they were willing to go to deter someone heading towards incriminating Suu Kyi.

But the Burmese regime is fully aware that the eyes of the world are fixed firmly upon it, and this international attention is far from welcome. Outcry has reached fever pitch, and the junta now has to look towards dampening the impact of the final verdict. The US-based legal counsel for Suu Kyi, Jared Genser, believes that the delay could be "a smart move" by the government to cushion the blow, and extend the decision until the middle of August "when a lot of government and UN officials are going to be on vacation." In this case, he said, it will remain to be seen whether, given that August is a slow news month, they'll actually heighten expectations by the lack of other news, "or whether in fact they will succeed in driving this to some extent from the headlines".

Another factor for the regime to contend with is the tricky question of what to do with Suu Kyi once the verdict is given. It is perhaps no coincidence that the house in which she has been kept in detention for 14 of the last 20 years, which she shared with her two caretakers and in which she was allowed room for meditation and a semblance of normality, is suddenly the subject of a legal battle over ownership. Suu Kyi's adopted cousin, a retired military officer, claims ownership of a portion of the land, and has put it up for sale.

This follows an attempt by her estranged brother, who has been described by various Burmese opposition groups as a surrogate of the junta, to claim half-ownership of the home, with speculation that he would then sell this to the government. Thus it could be that the decision of Suu Kyi's verdict is extended until the dispute is settled, leaving the court ostensibly no choice but to place her behind bars. In this outcome, the site that has become almost revered throughout Burma could fall to another vindictive court decision.

It's all speculation, but that's the best we can do at this moment. Who knows what the reclusive regime is hatching? Only last month there were rumours that she could be held in a military base outside of Rangoon, while other people have floated the prospect of a lengthy sentence behind bars. According to senior National League for Democracy member Win Tin, the junta's posturing over the past three months means that the only conclusion will be a "prison outcome".

Either way, Suu Kyi is said to be prepared for the worst, and so must we be. The junta are not concerned with alleviating her agony, which is excruciatingly protracted and intensified by the delay, but placating their demons, which leaves her at the mercy of whichever tactic comes next.

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