Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

MYANMAR IN 2009: On the Cusp of Normality?

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

MYANMAR IN 2009: On the Cusp of Normality?

Article excerpt

The year prior to the inauguration of Myanmar's first ostensibly civilian government chosen through multiparty elections since 1960 seemed remarkably ordinary after the alarums of the previous two annus horribilis. While 2007 saw public protests by Buddhist monks and 2008 the devastating Cyclone Nargis that resulted in approximately 140,000 deaths, despite various issues such as those discussed in Martin Smith's accompanying essay on relations between the military State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government and various ethnically-designated organizations, the major political events of 2009 took place largely in meeting venues and courtrooms. The high drama that have marked so many of the years between the 1988 public protests which brought to an end the rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party and 2009 was absent. Except for a few incidents, some verging on the tragic, others the farcical, Myanmar seemed rather similar to other ASEAN countries which are considered "normal" by most observers most of the time.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Trial

The most bizarre event of the year was the arrest of a middle aged, unemployed, four-time married, fifty-four-year-old, student of trauma and religion, Mormon devotee, and former member of the United States Army, to whom, he claimed, God had spoken in regard to an alleged threat on the Ufe of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the General-Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD).1 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's many years of house arrest since her first detention in 1989 were due to come to an end in May 2009, thus placing the ruling military council, whose Chairman, Senior General Than Shwe, ultimately makes major decisions, in a quandary. Should they release her and risk her generating both domestic and international attention, perhaps destabiüzing the final stages of their seven-step road map to a constitutional government acceptable to the military in 2010, or contrive a means to keep her under detention and thus incur the wrath of exiled political organizations and most Western and some Asian governments? The antics of John William Yettaw, whether inspired by God or man, saved them from facing that dilemma.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for the past six years at her late mother's house on University Avenue in Yangon, was to be released on 27 May under the terms of her detention order according to the 1975 Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts. However, on the morning of 6 May, at approximately half past five, Yettaw was arrested while swirrrming, with the aid of home made flippers and two empty five-litre water bottles, in Inya Lake, thirty yards from the residence of the United States Charge d'Affair's residence on Pyi Road, the opposite end of the lake from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's abode. Upon arrest, he admitted he was coming from her home.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Yettaw, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's two female companions were consequently placed on trial for a variety of offences surrounding the bizarre events of 3 to 6 May. According to the court record, Yettaw had arrived in Myanmar on a tourist visa on 2 May and checked into a smaU downtown hotel. The next evening he took a taxi to the vicinity of the NLD leader's residence, not far from the new American embassy building, walked through a drainage pipe toward the lake, and made his way along the bank to the rear entrance of her residence. It turned out that he had used this mode of access and egress the previous November during a twenty-six-day visit to Myanmar. During this visit he also caUed on various non-government organizations in Yangon, offering to work for them. In 2008, though not meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he left her a copy of the Book of Mormon which she subsequently gave to the police after his arrest.

The trial, which commenced on 14 May, was heard in the North Yangon District Court at Insein Prison where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the others were detained for the duration, she in special prison officers' facilities. …

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