How to explain the complexity of Burmese political theater? Suu Kyi, says a Burmese judge, is guilty of harboring an American who swam to her home, thereby violating the terms of her arrest. No one is even mildly surprised by this. And yet, as the Post ’s Tim Johnston puts it in his excellent Post analysis, the case “had all the trimmings of due legal process: judges, defense attorneys and a system of appeal when the judges barred some of the defense witnesses.” After she was sentenced to three years of hard labor, General Than Shwe made a show of magnanimously commuting her sentence to 18 months under house arrest.
Why all the machinations? Why not just send her back to her villa and be done with it? Johnston characterizes the drawn-out trial as a “response” to international pressure, but that seems like a stretch; even when the world isn’t watching, which is to say, even when the accused is not Suu Kyi, Burma tries political dissidents. It does so because even totalitarian regimes need to justify themselves to the people they rule and the bureaucrats who do their bidding. At some level Suu Kyi’s elaborate trial was held for the benefit of the minor officials, judges, and attorneys who orchestrated it-educated people who need to believe that their jobs are necessary and just, that they are ministers of due process rather than yes-men for a bunch of thugs.
In October of 2004, when Burma’s army suddenly decided to arrest its prime minister, the state-run paper ran with the headline “NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW.” This is a terrifically weird thing to say in an isolated dictatorship run at the whim of a paranoid general, but it enables the kind of self-delusion that makes life as a Burmese bureaucrat tolerable. Suu Kyi’s attorney says he has “never known” an acquittal in a political case. Presumably he’ll still go to work tomorrow.