THE SENTENCING of Aung San Suu Kyi to 18 months of house arrest is an indication of the strength of international influence on corrupt regimes. Ms Suu Kyi was convicted of breaking the terms of her existing house arrest in Burma by receiving an unplanned visit from John Yettaw, a well-meaning but disturbed Mormon from the United States. On the one hand, the sentence shows the limits of pressure from other nations: Ms Suu Kyi is again detained, and will not be free to participate in the Burmese elections expected to take place in May 2010. On the other hand, the military “intervened” in the sentencing, to commute three years’ imprisonment to house arrest, a charade of compassion that none the less reveals the junta’s anxiety about being seen to be too harsh.
The survival of the pro-democracy leader, despite all efforts to silence her, owes much to her high profile overseas. Although she has spent 14 of the past 20 years in some form of custody, the military rulers in Burma have not been able to erase her memory. Various sanctions have been put in place against the regime, with varying effectiveness, but public awareness has proved the most important factor in keeping hope alive for those in Burma who support democracy. Without Ms Suu Kyi, it is probable that the estimated 2000 political prisoners there would be largely forgotten.
The international card needs to be played carefully. The actions of Mr Yettaw in swimming unbidden to Ms Suu Kyi’s heavily guarded house are regrettable, since they have allowed the regime to accuse Ms Suu Kyi of consorting with foreign powers — this despite the clear evidence that Mr Yettaw was acting on his own compulsion. A similar accusation surrounds the show trial of Iranians associated with European embassies, particularly the Frenchwoman Clotilde Reiss and two embassy employees, Nazak Afshar and Hossein Rassam. In the past, especially during negotiations for the release of hostages, Western governments have been muted in their criticism of unjust actions by hostile states. They have learnt over the years that there is little to be gained by reticence, and much, potentially, by outspokenness.
The same goes for individual actions — as long as they are more thought out than Mr Yettaw’s. Organisations such as Amnesty International are adept at finding the contact details for officials, some quite lowly, who have some influence over the fate of political prisoners worldwide. Participating in letter-writing campaigns — if only to keep alive the idea of international scrutiny — and funding legal challenges continue to be the most effective means of affording prisoners of conscience a degree of the protection given to Ms Suu Kyi.