Pressure grows on Burma's Junta

Every night in Rangoon, Burma's capital city before the country's generals retreated to their redoubt in Naypyidaw, "Free Aung San Suu Kyi” is scrawled across government buildings in white paint.

"The security forces are busy all night and morning scrubbing off the slogans as quickly as they find them” said a Rangoon resident, who declined to be identified.

These spray paint attacks are being replicated in many cities and towns throughout the country, according to opposition sources. Even in ethnic minority areas in the Kachin and Shan states, young activists are spraying slogans on government buildings and handing out pamphlets. "Ethnic youth are demanding Aung San Suu Kyi's immediate release,” Zin Linn, a spokesman for the Burmese opposition based in Thailand, told Asia Sentinel. "This is very important.”

Burma's pro-democracy movement has been trampled flat repeatedly by the generals, most recently in September of 2007, and its people have been beaten down by starvation and deprivation in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. It remains to be seen if outrage will come to anything over the near certainty that the charismatic pro-democracy leader will remain in detention for at least another five years, according to diplomats based in Rangoon. Her trial will conclude momentarily in yet another secret session inside Insein prison, and the judges are expected to give their verdict sometime next week.

But Burma's top general, Than Shwe may have effectively shot himself in the foot. The leaders of Britain, France and the United States have demanded her immediate release, a move endorsed by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Hundreds of internationally famous actors, actresses, singers, sports stars and writers have also joined the chorus of calls to "Free Aung San Suu Kyi.” The international outcry and world-wide protests that have erupted since she was arrested and charged last month show no signs of subsiding. In fact it is likely to grow, especially if as expected she is sentenced again to jail.

The movement to free the detained opposition leader has begun to spark protests within the country. Young members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy are preparing a silent protest in the event she is sentenced. Students and other young people with no political affiliations have also joined the underground campaign in the country to free Aung San Suu Kyi.

At present the movement is handing out leaflets and pictures of the democracy hero throughout the country. In several towns where the NLD have strong bases, including Mandalay, the country's second largest city, more than a thousand photos of Aung San Suu Kyi are distributed daily, as the campaigners dodge the police and security who are trying to stop them.

"Young monks are also angry and preparing to vent their feelings if Suu Kyi is not freed soon,” a senior Buddhist monk in Rangoon told Asia Sentinel on condition of anonymity. The monks are still seething after the government's brutal crackdown on their protest movement, the Saffron Revolt, in September 2007. The arrest and sentencing of numerous activist monks after the crackdown further enflamed the monks, who now see the release of all political prisoners, including the imprisoned monks, as a priority. Aung San Suu Kyi's sentencing will only heighten their anger, according to opposition sources with good contact amongst the monks.

Some young people have now formed the "Best Manure” group and intend to challenge the government in every possible way if Aung San Suu Kyi is sentenced to jail at the end of this trial. "We'll sacrifice our lives if we need to,” said one of the group's leaders.

General Than Shwe's master-plan to make sure Aung San Suu Kyi is in no position to sabotage his scheme to introduce a civilian government dominated by the military after next year's scheduled elections appears to be backfiring. Instead of a quiet trial and sentencing, the international community is up in arms, and renewed protests within the country are growing.

"With one fell swoop, Than Shwe has undermined his own strategy of trying to sideline Aung San Suu Kyi,” a senior western diplomat who knows the opposition leader well told Asia Sentinel. "Than Shwe's actions have proved once again that she remains in everyone's minds – inside and outside the country – as Burma's real leader.”

"The regime is really worried now: they never expected the international community to be so vociferous and united in pressuring them,” said Zin Linn. He believes this brought about the temporary suspension of the trial – it was surprisingly adjourned for a week. This was probably to allow the junta leaders formulate their strategy to deal with the mounting international pressure and the growing social and political unrest within the country, he said.

The Burmese authorities are so worried by the possibility that the UN may bow to western pressure to step up sanctions and other measures against the regime that they have launched a diplomatic offensive at the United Nations in New York and many of the world's capitals to attempt to deflect international pressure. Although the Security Council adopted a weakened press statement more than a week ago voicing concern over the trial and calling for the release of all political prisoners, the regime knows that a guilty verdict will only fuel demands for tougher action against them at the UN.

Burma's generals have belatedly realized that their treatment of its pro-democracy leader has put increased pressure on them at international and regional ministerial gatherings. The issue dominated the Asian and European foreign ministers meeting in Hanoi a week ago and again at the EU-ASEAN foreign ministers summit in Phnom Penh later in the week. The Burmese foreign minister skipped both meetings because he wanted to avoid being criticized, leaving it to the deputy foreign minister Maung Myint to deal with the issue.

The ASEAN-South Korean summit just concluded in Seoul was also dominated by the issue of Burma – and the trial in particular. The ASEAN leaders all voiced their grave concerns to their Burmese counterpart, with Thailand, the current ASEAN president, taking the lead.

Last weekend, at an international defense ministers' gathering in Singapore, Burma's deputy defense minister, Maj. Gen. Aye Myint – who is attending the security conference because General Than Shwe, who is both the country's top general and the defense minister, has refused to attend international meetings for nearly six years to avoid being chastised about the situation in the country -- felt it necessary to defend his government's actions.

"The legal action against Aung San Suu Kyi is merely the internal affairs of Myanmar, taking action through its legal system in accordance with domestic law,' the deputy defense minister told the annual forum of defense ministers, academics, analysts and experts.

"If offenders are not (prosecuted), anarchy will prevail, and there will be breach of peace and security,” Maj-Gen Aye Myint said. She is guilty of "committing a cover-up of the truth by her failure to report an illegal immigrant,” he added.

Aung San Suu Kyi is facing five years in prison if she is convicted of the charges that she broke the conditions of her current house arrest by allowing an uninvited visitor, an American Vietnam war vet John William Yettaw, who secretly swam across the lake to her back door earlier this month, to stay and gave him food and drink. She insists she is innocent.

"I am not guilty because I have not committed any crime,” Suu Ky told the court more than a week ago, according to her lawyer.

The opposition leader is accused of accepting books and other materials from her unwelcomed guest, who originally swam to her residence last November and left the gifts, including a religious text of his faith, the Book of Mormon, two black robes worn by Muslims, sunglasses and a flashlight. Aung San Suu Kyi insists that the detention order prohibits her from sending out material, but not of receiving it, according to her lawyer, Nyan Win. The authorities are responsible for the security at the house and should have prevented the intrusion; if anyone is at fault, it is the local police, he added.

"The court was a surreal scene, all the actors in place, with the end already scripted,” Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador to Burma, told Asia Sentinel. He attended the court hearing on the only two days diplomats were allowed in to observe the proceedings.

"I'm sure they will jail Daw Suu,” said Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer who was helping prepare her defense when his law license was revoked on the eve of the trial opening a week ago.

Human rights groups believe revoking Aung Thein's right to practice law was the latest blatant attempt by the regime to intimidate lawyers who are working on political cases. More than a dozen lawyers are currently in jail for working 'sensitive' cases, including defending top monks and former student leaders arrested during the September 2007 protests that were crushed by the military.

Concern about the mounting international pressure has prompted the regime to go on a diplomatic offensive. Several spurious interpretations are now being actively spread by the junta. The incident was organized by "internal and external anti-government forces" -- a term which the Burmese government usually uses to refer to pro-democracy groups – Burma's foreign minister, Nyan Win, told his Japanese counterpart, Hirofumi Nakasone the day after the trial started during their 15 minute phone conversation.

Burma's Consul-General in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, was even more imaginative and in a letter posted on the consulate's web-site suggested that Mr Yettaw was either a "a secret agent” or Ms Suu Kyi's "boyfriend.”

"Foreign countries should realize that the present case concerning Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not 'trumped up' by the government, as some have been willing to claim,” said a briefing note sent by the foreign ministry to all Burmese embassies around the world, urgent them to defend the government's position.

"Ignorance by big countries [Britain, the US and Europe] of Myanmar's political process is tantamount to derailing Myanmar's transition to democracy,” the briefing paper continued. "Interference in Myanmar's internal affairs amounts to sabotaging the state constitution already approved by the people and slowing down the measures that will enable the people to enjoy their democratic rights.'

Burma's deputy defense minister told his audience in Singapore that other countries "should refrain from interfering in [Myanmar's] internal affairs that will affect peace and security of the region.” He went in to warn the international community that continued interference in Burma's internal affairs "may possibly affect mutual understanding and friendly relations [with other countries].”

This is the crux of the Burmese government's attempt deflect international criticism. "The present situation is purely a domestic matter and legal action has been taken in accordance with the laws of the land against violation of the law,” Burmese ambassadors around the world have been instructed to say. "This situation does not in any way affect international peace and security and thus is not the concern of the UN Security Council.”

Burma's military regime real fear is the UN Security Council. "The only body that the junta really fears, is the Security Council,” the former UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told Asia Sentinel. "I have personal evidence of this. So the Security Council must address this immediately as matter of absolute urgency,” he said.