Some people are saying that Aung San Suu Kyi's verdict today—18 months of house arrest, commuted down from three years of hard labor—is a sign that Burma's junta leader Than Shwe really is beginning to show more flexibility. They're wrong. The junta is subjecting the opposition leader's freedom to "death by a thousand cuts," the notorious Chinese torture technique that prolonged prisoners' lives but only temporarily, and at a ghastly price.
The generals who rule Burma are trying to take a page from Beijing's playbook, hoping that the world—and their own citizens—will tolerate continuing government repression as they do in China, which happens to be a key ally of the Burmese generals. But the junta has forgotten one important thing. The grand bargain that has prevailed between the Chinese government and its people goes like this: Beijing promises to keep delivering better and better living standards to its citizens, who in turn accept its benign autocracy and refrain from toppling the government. Though that Chinese deal has come under strain at times, it has survived better than expected for more than three decades.
Problem is, Burma's junta has presided over a steady deterioration in the country's economy, which used to be the world's largest rice exporter back in British colonial times. (Burma became an independent country in 1948; for more than 100 years before that, it was mostly ruled as part of the British Raj.) Since the Burmese military grabbed power in 1962, ending a period of democratic government, the country has been wracked by civil unrest, a languishing economy, natural disasters, and simmering insurgencies. Per capita GDP is about $1,200, slightly better than Rwanda, and the most violent incidents of antigovernment unrest have been rooted in economic grievances. In August 1988, the regime brutally crushed student-led demonstrations that erupted after authorities (apparently on numerologists' advice) abruptly demonetized many currency notes. Another bout of civil unrest was ignited in September 2007 by drastic fuel-price hikes. The only thing truly flourishing today is the military itself, which now eats up 40 percent of the national budget. It has doubled in size since Suu Kyi's electoral victory was stolen 19 years ago.
The grand bargain that prevails in China does not, and cannot, work in today's Burma. But Than Shwe's junta keeps trying to replicate its techniques. Today was the last chance for the strongman to make a genuine bid for the legitimacy that has so obsessed the country's ruling generals. The charismatic opposition leader Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the past 19 years under house arrest, is widely seen to have been charged with violating the terms of her detention as an excuse for the junta to continue detaining her.
She was due to be freed when a traveling American, John Yettaw, swam across a Rangoon lake in May to warn her of assassins whom he'd glimpsed in a vision. She allowed him to stay at her residence for two nights—and for the "crime" of hosting this uninvited visitor, Suu Kyi's detention was prolonged. (Yettaw was sentenced to seven years, including four years' hard labor, for violating immigration law and for illegal swimming.)
Suu Kyi's sentence pretty much ensures the junta will not be seriously challenged in next year's parliamentary elections—but also that Than Shwe has lost Burma for good. Had she been freed, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party would almost certainly not be able to duplicate its resounding electoral victory in the last election 19 years ago. Her followers have been harassed, intimidated, and co-opted to such a degree in the intervening years that it's a shadow of the political organization it had once been. Even so, the junta was still too insecure to allow elections that might bestow legitimacy upon the winner. It's a sign Than Shwe knows his government is unlawful.
The magnanimity he tried to show is a tactic often seen in Chinese political trails. The court initially sentenced Suu Kyi to three years of hard labor, then called a five-minute recess. At that point, a commutation order from the general himself was read aloud in the courtroom. But this was not compromise; it was desperation. Now, the 2010 parliamentary vote that the junta is taking such pains to prepare for will be seen as a sham. That means it will be up to Suu Kyi or a younger opposition leadership—or maybe a more pragmatic set of generals—to give the Burmese a government they can believe in again.