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Who's Really On Trial?

Updated On: May 26, 2009

Aung San Suu Kyi may be behind bars but the junta's in the hot seat

WITH globalisation, we can see across borders, even within a state faraway and reclusive.

Through the media, we see what is happening, especially about issues we care about, whether it is the economy, or human suffering and injustice. Global citizens, in this sense, judge governments.

So it is that many talk about Myanmar again. The government has put on trial Aung San Suu Kyi for breaking a law against hosting a person in her house who was not registered to stay there.

Such laws are not unknown or unique. In countries that face a security threat, registration aims to minimise contact and possible conspiracies. It is generally up to each country to make its own law and to enforce the law through its courts.

But when generals rule the country, as they do in Myanmar, we may wonder if the general rule is fair.

As the trial proceeds, the global community ends up judging not the citizen who stands accused, but rather the government.

So how do we judge from the outside, between citizen and government? Look at the overall reputation and the facts in the case.

This particular citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi, seems beyond reproach. After she led the National League for Democracy to win an election, she was never allowed to form the government, and has instead been held under house arrest. But rather than fade into obscurity, even in captivity, she has become the icon for the country.

Few would judge that she has done wrong in this case, even if there is a technical breach of the Myanmar law. She allowed an unregistered guest to stay on the compound of the house where she is held under arrest.

But reports are that the visitor was unknown to her. He was a foreigner who so much admired her he swam across a lake to break into her house to meet her. When he pleaded exhaustion, she was just too kind to force him to leave.

In contrast, few would accuse the government of Myanmar for being too kind. People will remember this was the same government that clamped down harshly and violently on protests led by monks in late 2006.

The government was also initially slow to respond to the humanitarian disaster in the wake of cyclone Nargis. There is a litany of reports by the United Nations about their human rights violations.

Many who will judge the government of Myanmar have never visited the country. Few will understand its history and current circumstances. Fewer still may know or accept the concern that if the generals are not in charge, the country may fall apart because of contending and armed ethnic groups.

There are those who will therefore say that we cannot judge if we do not understand. It is common to accuse Western democracies, activist non-governmental organisations and the media of being biased. But sometimes, the case is so clear cut, the injustice so obvious, that universal condemnation is appropriate.

Silence is not an option

In the present circumstances, it is not only Western democracies and activists who protest what is being done. The telling evidence of the weight of opinion comes from looking across members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). The governments of Myanmar's close neighbours - Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand - have also voiced their concerns.

None of them can pretend to be perfect guardians of democracy. In some, charges against the opposition have been brought to court, such as the corruption conviction against Mr Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand.

In Indonesia, even as the country has moved from an autocracy to establish a credible and stable democracy, there is an unfinished agenda for the reform of courts and anti-corruption efforts.

Neither of these governments are strangers to Myanmar. They have interacted with the generals and officials and must do so again, as neighbours and co-members of Asean. Indeed, some stand accuse of dealing too closely with the generals.

But even so, these neighbours realise that what is happening cannot be met with silence. They - unlike Myanmar's generals - have a deeper integration into the world economy and community, and have to be sensitive to the norms of what is accepted.

This becomes more important as the Asean Regional Forum approaches in the coming weeks. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend and the discussion should look more broadly at regional security issues, and not just focus on Myanmar. But it will, if the generals there persist in unfair and unreasonable actions.

On its part, the Obama administration has signalled a willingness to rethink their current policy of sanctions against Myanmar. Many believe these have been ineffective and indeed counter-productive. Yet, engaging Myanmar cannot be without any conditions on how they behave in the eyes of the world.

The US and Asean countries who have expressed concern about events in Myanmar may need to work out common viewpoints and new policies to discourage the worse abuses in that country.

It is Aung San Suu Kyi who is facing trial. But the broader judgment of the global community will be about the government of Myanmar, and the character and conviction of other governments in responding to injustice there.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, and for this year, Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the US.

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