Page last updated at 15:29 GMT, Friday, 31 July 2009 16:29 UK

The choices facing Burma's military

By Kate McGeown
BBC News

A demonstrator holds up a photograph of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Despite the junta's best efforts, Aung San Suu Kyi is still an iconic figure

Burma's Senior General Than Shwe faces a dilemma.

He desperately wants to keep his most influential opponent away from the Burmese public, yet he fears the uproar that will ensue if he keeps her locked up.

Than Shwe and his ruling generals have already procrastinated over Aung San Suu Kyi's latest trial. Most court hearings in Burma last a few days at most, but this one has been going on for more than two months.

Now they've stalled again, postponing the verdict until 11 August.

Unlike the other 2,000 political prisoners - whom the Burmese military seem to keep in jail without much thought for public opinion - it is evident that Burma's officials do not know what to do with this demure 64-year-old woman.

Revered and respected

Aung San Suu Kyi is not an ordinary prisoner. As the daughter of Burma's independence hero General Aung San, she was always going to command people's respect.

But as the rightful winner of the country's last democratic elections in 1990 - which the military refused to recognise - she gained credibility in her own right.

John Yettaw
John Yettaw's nocturnal swim gave the junta the pretext they wanted

By imprisoning her for so long, the junta has unwittingly given her even more symbolic significance in the eyes of Burmese people.

"An aura has built up around her," said Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics. "The public view her as the conscience of Burmese society."

It is especially important for the military generals that Aung San Suu Kyi is out of the way ahead of the next elections, which they plan to hold in early 2010.

The polls are widely seen as an attempt to legitimise the regime by increasing its democratic credentials.

But in order for this to work to its favour, the generals need to make sure their allies win.

In the 1990 elections, the military miscalculated in a big way - they were trounced by Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy. This time they don't want to take any chances.

When an eccentric American swam to Ms Suu Kyi's lakeside house in his homemade flippers in May, he gave the generals the excuse they were looking for.

By accusing her of breaking the terms of her house arrest because she let her uninvited well-wisher stay the night, they finally had a reason to extend her detention and keep her safely locked away throughout the election process.

Risky strategy

But even if the junta find some tenuous legal reason to jail Ms Suu Kyi, or extend the terms of her house arrest, they know they will stoke intense public outrage.

The public view her as the conscience of Burmese society.
Maung Zarni, Research fellow on Burma, London School of Economics

Keeping behind bars a woman who is not only a Nobel Peace Prize laureate but also the world's most famous political detainee is a high-risk strategy.

Burmese people will be angry and upset if she is found guilty, but according to Mung Pi, who runs a blog site for Burmese exiles, the government knows there is not much that people inside the country can actually do to change things.

"A guilty verdict probably won't lead to large street protests, because people are still suffering from 2007," he said.

In September 2007 large-scale demonstrations led by monks - the most revered sector of society - were brutally quashed by the military, and the opposition movement is still said to be recovering. The generals know that, right now, their opponents do not have the strength to fight back.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, meets with Burma's Senior General Than Shwe
Than Shwe did not let Ban Ki-Moon meet Ms Suu Kyi on his trip to Burma

"The opposition movement has the moral backing of the people, but it's whoever controls the streets, not the moral high ground, who matters," said Maung Zarni.

Coping with the indignation of the international community, though, is a different matter.

On the surface, it seems that the Burmese generals are completely intransigent when it comes to the demands of the rest of the world.

They have ignored recent incentives from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and refused to let UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon meet Aung San Suu Kyi on a recent visit.

They also remain resolutely unswayed by the constant pleas from celebrities and protest marches.

But there are times when the junta does listen to the outside world.

It belatedly reacted to criticism of its handling of the devastating cyclone last year, letting in foreign aid after initially saying it could manage alone.

And if the military really was oblivious to international reaction, it would surely not have bothered to plan elections - no matter how flawed those elections might be.

Chinese influence

The lengthy delays in Aung San Suu Kyi's trial are another indication that the recalcitrant generals can sometimes be swayed by foreign influence.

"The regime wants to take its time because of the mounting pressure it's under," a diplomat in Rangoon told reporters.

The regime wants to take its time because of the mounting pressure it's under
Western diplomat in Rangoon

It is still doubtful the military will take much notice of the West, though. The long years of EU and US sanctions mean that Burma has been thrown into the arms of China and Russia, as well as neighbouring Asian nations.

"When push comes to shove, they can afford to just ignore... what the West thinks. They're backed by China," said Justin Wintel, the author of a book on Aung San Suu Kyi.

And as long as they can rely on China and Russia to veto any major action by the UN Security Council, and their neighbours at the Asean regional forum to do little more than voice occasional disapproval, the generals probably feel there will be no serious ramifications to keeping Aung San Suu Kyi behind bars.

Which is ultimately why most analysts believe that Ms Suu Kyi will be found guilty; the negatives of having her free outweigh the positives.

But even if he does send her to jail, Than Shwe already knows that she is likely to remain his most potent opponent.

She may be out of sight, but someone as iconic as Aung San Suu Kyi will never be out of Burmese minds.

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