When the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a new term of house arrest this week the international community responded with shock and anger. The US government condemned the sentence, which a court handed down ostensibly because Suu Kyi allowed a deranged American tourist to rest in her house after he swam across a lake to see her. He was given seven years in prison.
Inside Burma, the verdict seemed to cause little stir, though a heightened military presence in major cities helped keep the population quiet. The military junta had launched the absurd trial – Yettaw was able to reach Suu Kyi’s house even though it is probably the most guarded in all of Burma – in order to prevent the opposition leader from taking part in national elections scheduled for next year.
The military seems to be holding the elections so it can shed its fatigues for civilian clothes, with its handpicked party dominating the poll. It believes creating this civilian veneer will allow it to build warmer relations with its neighbours: India, Thailand and China desperately want Burma’s untapped oil and gas, but need a fig leaf of ‘democracy’ to defend their Burma investments to the international community. In the 1990s, the Indian government built close ties to Suu Kyi’s party and other Burmese democracy activists. No longer. Now India invites the head of the junta, Than Shwe, for state visits.
Yet though Suu Kyi’s extended detention provoked no obvious response inside Burma, the military should not rest easy. Her party, the National League for Democracy, will probably refuse to contest the election. But the NLD may not be the army’s biggest problem. It still faces armed ethnic militias along its eastern frontier, and several of the groups – particularly the powerful narcotraffickers United Wa State Army – could take advantage of the election to cause chaos and press the regime for greater autonomy. Without the NLD to channel dissent, popular anger at decades of misrule could find expression in less organised and potentially violent forms, or explode into street protests like 2007’s Saffron Revolution, led by monks. And as the military learned once before, when it confidently allowed an election in 1990 that was swept by the opposition, even suggesting the country will have a poll could have unintended consequences.