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The Show Trial Of The Century June 30, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, political prisoners, South East Asia.
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originally published in Tehelka

THE STORY of Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest ordeal is a tale shrouded in propaganda and censorship, besieged by one of the most draconian media environments on the planet and set in the battle for the future of a nation.

As her trial enters its second week, recriminations are entering fever pitch even as the true nature of what actually occurred and why is unclear, with little hope of truth reaching the light of day.

It all started in early May when it was reported that an American man was plucked out of the waters of Yangon’s Lake Inya in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of May. The man, 53-yearold John William Yettaw was said to be in possession of an empty water bottle, wire cutters, some US dollars and a camera.

The world came to know of the ‘swimmer’ from the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run Yangon newspaper and junta mouthpiece.

Soon, photos were leaked of the man who had been caught after reportedly swimming back from Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home. He had apparently broken into one of the most heavily guarded houses in Yangon and spent a few nights there. The photos showed an elderly man posing for self-portraits, with one showing him wearing homemade flippers.

The fuse was lit. Myanmar’s most widely known ‘celebrity’ and Nobel laureate was firmly back in the spotlight less than three weeks before her last stint of detention was due to end, on the 27th.

Though under the law against causing public disturbances under which she was incarcerated a person can be detained for 5 years without trial or release, in 2008, her detention was extended extrajudicially by a year. She would now stand trial for violating the terms of her house arrest and the Myanmar law that states that no one can have a foreigner stay overnight at their house without informing the authorities.

Rumours spread rapidly as the world only had the initial article and the leaked photos to go on. The logical jump was made with swift and knowing cynicism: no one expected the junta to release Suu Kyi let alone abide by any legal framework. The ‘swimmer’ provided the perfect storm with which to sink the democracy movement’s guiding star.

The ‘swimmer’ was described by people in his native Missouri as an earnest, intellectual father of many children and a member of the Christian Mormon sect.

Meanwhile, a palpable anger grew amongst many Myanmarese as further eyewitnesses reported that Yettaw was an overly emotional ‘extremist’ supposedly on a ‘spiritual journey’. Whilst his idiotic actions were condemned, the validity of the story was also questioned. Yettaw was said by his ex-wife to suffer from asthma. The swim to and from Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence would have been a 4½ km journey, one that would have supposedly been too much for him to handle.

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Suu Kyi leaves court

If that wasn’t enough, as the trial started, an anonymous taxi driver came forward and claimed he had dropped off the American in front of Suu Kyi’s residence and seen him enter through the front gate, showing a red card to the guards at the door. Even if he had swum back, how had he been able to sidestep guards quite so easily?

Such questions sparked accusations that the entire affair had been either concocted or used to further Suu Kyi’s detention. The accusations led to a backlash of counter-claims from the junta as global leaders clamoured against the ‘kangaroo court’ trying Myanmar’s last democratically elected leader.

The regime seems convinced that the CIA are about to attack, a la Rambo movies

Harsh words from regional allies bit the hardest as Thailand, holding the alternate presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) spoke in rare open criticism of the authoritarian regime in Naypyidaw, Burma’s new capital. The EU heralded the ASEAN statement as ‘remarkable’ whilst the junta greeted it as against the body’s ‘conformity’ and an affront to the ‘dignity of Thailand’.

The junta meanwhile concluded that pro democracy exiles, largely based in Thailand had concocted the ploy to ‘embarrass the government’. It is a common theme for a regime that seems in thrall to a theory, fired by Rambo films, that the CIA are about to attack. The narrative is perhaps conjured for propaganda’s sake as much as out of genuine paranoia.

The democracy movement has captured the imagination of the west as is displayed by the apparent actions of Yettaw. Like a crusade, the notion of ‘freeing Burma’ has entered the ‘evangelist’ western imagination. Aung San Suu Kyi, moreover, was married to a Briton and was educated there and in India. Her internationalist credentials are thus portrayed as unpatriotic and untrustworthy by a regime that can be characterised as xenophobic at the best of times, creating a convenient narrative that there are indeed imperialist enemies at the gate.

Meanwhile, the junta’s most ‘colourful’ spokesperson, its consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung claimed that Yettaw was Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘boyfriend’ in a spiteful attempt at a smear. Myint Aung’s last outing on the international press was noted for the open racism he displayed towards the Rohingya minority group, whom he described as ‘ugly as ogres’.

On the 14th of May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial began in the notorious Insein jail. A colonial era megalith with as many horror stories as it has rats, Insein’s prisoners are sometimes housed in colonialera kennels. Where one colonial Alsatian would have resided, three tortured political prisoners currently do.

Suu Kyi was made to testify without giving her time to consult her lawyers

With the eyes of the world straining for news of the trial of the only incarcerated Nobel Laureate, protests erupted around the world and a virtual shutdown of Yangon occurred. The high pressure was felt on all sides and the junta relented by allowing select journalists and diplomats into the courtroom for a single day every week. Little of substance has come out of the trial; Suu Kyi has said she will plead not guilty. Adding colour to the tale, Yettaw has said he visited Suu Kyi because he had visions that she would be assassinated. He claimed he had visited before last year and it emerged that he had left six books in the house, including the Book of Mormon, a burqa as a disguise and several pairs of goggles.

Last week it was announced that Suu Kyi would testify as a witness at very short notice with no time to consult her lawyers. This came after a police official announced a recalculation of how long she has been detained. He further stated that they had considered releasing her before Yettaw showed up. As usual, most statements have to be questioned.

In this atmosphere, a sense of desperation emerges. Most have concluded that the verdict has already been written, with the court proceedings apparently being rushed through. If anything has emerged, it is a game in which the regime’s culpability in foul play is hidden for the sake of its image or turned into a charade by near universal condemnation at a level that is almost unprecedented, with usually silent neighbours such as China making statements condemning the process.

The bizarre sequence of events makes Yettaw a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald of our time; his motives unclear, his methods a mystery, his culpability unknown. In all likelihood he has stumbled into a tragedy, as a naïve catalyst of oppression in the ongoing drama of Myanmar’s search for accountable governance.

Since its original publication Aung San Suu Kyi has had her defense witnesses barred from testifying, with judges rejecting all appeal to have them reinstated. Only one of her witnesses was allowed to give evidence.

Burma’s Misery Globalised February 3, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, Migration, South East Asia.
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originally published on Znet

Out of the pariah state into the tumult of international rejection, the story of Burma’s desperate minorities and the tyranny they flee from.

The Rohinga journey, taking to the sea, from the depths of ethnic oppression is a story that scars the 21st century and ridicules notions of progress and enlightenment, it is time Asia woke up to the vacuum of morality that lies in its midst.

The faces of desperation, the scarred, emaciated bodies that have washed up on the pristine beaches of the Andaman Sea are a rare glimpse into that darkness, a darkness that is intentionally hidden by the regime. Treated like vermin by the Thai police intercepting them, cajoled like cattle they are manoeuvred away from tourists with savage beatings. Whilst many have shown signs of burns from when they’re vessels were set alight by the Thai police.

It is said that over a thousand Rohinga people from South West Burma have arrived in Thailand and been returned from whence they came; the sea. And this month the world has shared in this tragic reaction to the humanitarian crisis these people have fled in their homeland. It is a collusion in many ways, an abrogation of morals form the perpetrating Thai authorities and an eye opening lesson in the lengths that people will go to fight for their and their families subsistence.

The reaction of the Thai authorities shames an otherwise progressive and accommodating society, but this story is one that only has one root cause, a cause that must be tackled at its root. Regional players must recognise this particularly if their security forces are prepared to knowingly commit innocents to the open waves, sending them off with beatings, little food an no engine, hoping that ‘the wind will carry them to India or somewhere’ as one Thai official noted under anonymity to the press.

The root cause however is the Burmese Junta and its oppression of its subjected people, particularly ethnic minorities. This is not simply a tale of lack of rights, freedom of expression or democracy, surrounding countries must recognise and bare witness to systematic crimes against humanity, often committed against ethic or religious minorities because of their descent. These crimes include forced labour, people trafficking, rape, extra judicial killings and heavy handedness that would make Atilla the Hun look like Ghandi, all committed by government forces with impunity.

These crimes are now also not something that can be hidden away, clouded by gas, teak and gem deals, the crimes that the Burmese people are subject to, will increasingly affect their neighbours whether or not those nations choose to have ‘non interference’ foreign policies as they naturally take the perilous choice to flee across international borders.

The crimes are committed by an organised, authoritarian military able to sustain itself on the fortunes pouring in from her ‘non interfering’ neighbours. The Shwe Gas project is a case in point. It will channel the natural wealth of this impoverished land abroad via pipeline. The gas will be extracted from the seabed by a U.S. company; Trans Ocean Inc., the exclusive purchasing rights will be owned by a Chinese one, CNPC, whilst the bulk of the project is owned by the Daewoo Company of Korea, Korea Gas corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Gas Authority of India.

If proof were further needed of the plight of Burmese minority groups, the treatment of ‘the forgotten people’, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently described the Chin people, was examined in a report of theirs. Inhabitants of an inaccessible region on the Burma India border, a border region that is racked with unrest on the Mizoram (Indian) side as it stands. The HRW report highlights the brutality and impoverishment that the Chin flee from only to be ‘unrecognised’ by the Indian government and then left to the mercy of the embattled locals or returned to the brutality. This leaves those who avoid deportation in the precarious situation that so many migrant communities do, as ‘unpeople’, pariahs forced into the hands of exploitative labour and abuse. Incidentally the deportation, by the government is a further crime under international law, stating as it does that returning migrants who they know will be mistreated, is a crime.

The Chin are persecuted for their religion, Christianity, just as the Rohingas are reviled for theirs, Islam. Religion is one plank in the systemic control that the military junta wield; violence is the main one however. For the thousands who do flee, whether because they went to the wrong meeting, ran from forced conscription or labour the trauma these memories produce will eternally remind them who is sadly still boss in their homeland.