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Jared Genser and Meghan Barron: The Trial of Aung San Suu Kyi

May 18, 2009

_How will the world react to the injustice?_

After spending 14 of the past 19 years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s ailing pro-democracy opposition leader, now sits in the military junta’s Insein prison, notorious for its filth, disease, and the mental and physical torture deployed against its prisoners. She faces a five-year prison sentence if convicted of breaching the terms of her house arrest because a stranger swam across a lake and broke into her dilapidated home.

The new charge is a sign of how seriously the junta takes the threat to its power posed by Ms. Suu Kyi’s peaceful activism. Her detention without charge or trial for being a “threat to the sovereignty and security of the State” was scheduled to reach what the junta had described as its maximum length on May 27. But the junta needed a pretext to keep her under lock and key during next year’s so-called elections, and bizarre events provided one.

So in her trial it won’t matter that the junta has exclusive responsibility to provide security at her residence. Nor will it make a difference that she did not know or invite into her home American John Yettaw, described by people who know him as eccentric but peaceloving, who allegedly wanted to talk to Ms. Suu Kyi as part of his research on forgiveness and resilience.

That the detention she supposedly violated has been repeatedly recognized by the United Nations as unlawful under both international and Burmese law won’t affect the outcome either. To compound the injustice, the junta has also charged the mother and daughter who live with Ms. Suu Kyi and her physician with various offenses that could land them in prison for years.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s case matters, and not only because she is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Her situation is representative of the suffering of the 22 million people of Burma under an authoritarian and inept junta. There are few regimes in the world as illegitimate and cruel as General Than Shwe’s. When the world fails to stand up for Ms. Suu Kyi, it fails the oppressed Burmese people.

Since Ms. Suu Kyi was first detained before Burma’s 1990 elections, more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed as the military has waged a relentless campaign of killing, torture and rape against ethnic minorities, as reported by Human Rights Watch. One million refugees have fled to neighboring countries while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons struggle to subsist in primitive jungle conditions. Rape is systematically employed as a weapon of war against ethnic minority women, according to groups such as the Shan Women’s Action Network. Last year when Burma was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, the international community had to beg the Burmese junta to allow it to save the government’s own people.

Ms. Suu Kyi will stand trial today and given the junta’s record to date, it is highly doubtful justice will be served. So the real question is how the world will react. Will it do more than simply condemn the junta’s actions? Will U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon take decisive action by traveling to Burma and demanding to meet with General Than Shwe? Will the Security Council do more than issue another mealy mouthed statement, and instead proactively press for national reconciliation in Burma?

Ms. Suu Kyi once said, “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” We outside Burma have not served her well to date, but she and her people need us now more than ever.

_Mr. Genser and Ms. Barron, lawyers with Freedom Now in Washington, D.C., represent Ms. Suu Kyi. _

Originally published in WSJ Asia.

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