Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 22, Dated Jun 06, 2009
The Show Trial
Of The Century
JOSEPH ZEITLYN tracks the dirty tricks the Burmese
military pulls to keep Aung Sang Suu Kyi jailed
Freedom restrained The barricaded entrance to Insein prison(top); Suu Kyi leaves court
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
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
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.
| 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
meme 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
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.
Zeitlyn is a freelance journalist
reporting from Myanmar