Viewpoint: Why Foreigners Can Make Things Worse for Burma

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Lwin Maung Maung / AFP / Getty Images

People walk past the front entrance of the Correctional Department of the Insein prison in Rangoon, Burma, on May 15, 2009

There's something about Burma. Zimbabwe, Laos, North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan — all these countries are plagued by repressive rulers. But none of these places grips the popular imagination like this isolated nation in the heartland of Asia. With its thuggish ruling junta and defiant, beautiful opposition leader, Burma inspires unparalleled international sympathy and the passions of do-gooders. Only the Dalai Lama rivals fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi when it comes to dissident magnetism — and, even so, the Tibetan monk has not languished under house arrest for much of the past two decades as Suu Kyi has.

Yet it may be the same global allure of the woman who Burmese simply refer to as "the Lady" that, in the strangest of circumstances, landed Suu Kyi in court and on trial on May 18. The 63-year-old democracy activist is charged with violating her house arrest by allowing an American intruder to stay at her lakeside villa after he unexpectedly — and illegally — swam across a lake and snuck into her backyard. John Yettaw of Missouri was arrested as he was paddling back from Suu Kyi's villa in early May. The American was put on trial the same day as Suu Kyi, charged with various crimes, including immigration violations and swimming in a forbidden part of Inya lake in Burma's commercial capital Rangoon. Two of Suu Kyi's aides, who live with her, are also on trial. (See pictures of Burma after Cyclone Nargis.)

The American's rationale for sneaking into the residential compound of the world's most famous political prisoner without her permission is uncertain. But the implications are chilling. Suu Kyi's most recent house-arrest stint was supposed to expire at the end of the month. Now, Burma's generals have a pretext, outlandish as it may be, to keep her locked up anew. The charges against the democracy activist carry a prison sentence of up to five years. "I cannot tell you what he was thinking when he made those swims or whether or not he considered the consequences for anyone but himself," Yettaw's stepson Paul told the Associated Press. "I am very sure it never occurred to him that Suu Kyi or her companions could also suffer from his choices."

A conviction will effectively sideline the Lady from lending her voice to nationwide elections that the junta has announced for next year. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide the country's last elections back in 1990, but the junta ignored the results. This time around, they have rigged the electoral system with arcane regulations that deliberately exclude Suu Kyi from participating. Other rules specify that top posts must be reserved for members of the military, thereby ensuring the junta's longevity. Nevertheless, many in Burma had hoped that Suu Kyi, in whatever limited form, might be able to influence the political process. It will be near impossible for her to do so from prison.

It is a remarkable irony that an unknown American, who presumably wanted to champion Suu Kyi's democratic cause, was the catalyst for her latest troubles. But so go the unintended consequences of political inexperience. "Burma's pro-democracy movement has long been an attraction for fantasists, fanatics and adventure tourists," writes Aung Zaw, editor of the respected online news magazine the Irrawaddy, sho covers Burma from neighboring Thailand. "Did John William Yettaw consider the consequences [of his swim]? Did he think for a minute that he would do more harm than good? Probably not."

One of Suu Kyi's lawyers branded Yettaw a "wretched American." Inside the country, it can be easy to spot the foreign idealists masquerading as, say, tourists or teachers, who have made it their mission to change Burma. They whisper about regime change and seethe with political indignation. They talk about signature campaigns or the latest effort to get foreign parliamentarians to condemn the Burmese regime's odious behavior.

The impulse to want to rid Burma of its cruel government is understandable. But, so far, the outcome of this imported idealism has been nothing but failure. Since seizing power in 1962, the military regime has only tightened its grip on power. And when foreigners are sentenced to jail in Burma, they have a far better chance of being released early or treated favorably than a Burmese political dissident does. As Aung Zaw noted in the Irrawaddy, two British activists who were convicted for staging separate political protests in Burma in 1999 were both released early after serving only a fraction of their jail sentences. Good news for them. But Burmese can hardly expect the same treatment. If Suu Kyi is convicted — and Burmese courts have a frighteningly high conviction rate — few expect the Lady to taste freedom anytime soon.

Read about Burma's ethnic minorities.

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