Burma's Exiled Prime Minister on Suu Kyi's Sentence

The guilty verdict handed down last week came as no surprise to those following the bizarre case brought against Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi by the country's military government. The junta—in power since 1962—claimed that the Nobel Peace Prize winner broke the rules of her house arrest when she allowed American John Yettaw into her house after he swam across a lake to see her last May. Her original sentence was three years' hard labor, but in a PR play, Gen. Than Shwe, the junta leader, commuted it to 18 months' house arrest.

Suu Kyi, who was elected prime minister in 1990 when her National League for Democracy party won the elections, has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years. Her first cousin Sein Win—who in January was re-elected prime minister of the exiled Burmese government—was in Indonesia last week to launch the Movement for Democracy and Rights for Ethnic Nationalities, a coalition of major Burmese ethnic and pro-democracy parties, both exiled and within Burma. Returning back to his home base in suburban Maryland this week, Win spoke by telephone with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell about the verdict, the upcoming elections, and how his cousin is handling her latest sentence.

BROWNELL: What was your reaction when you heard the verdict—were you surprised or did you expect it?
WIN: Not really surprised, no. From the very beginning we took this to be as a political plot. And of course we all are looking to whether she could be included in the 2010 elections. By this act, she is definitely excluded.

Why do you think Gen. Than Shwe commuted her sentence?
They have to be careful about internal outrage within Burma. She is the daughter of Aung San, who was the founder of the Burmese Army; this kind of sentence, if people hear about it, it will cause outrage. And their main objective is not the sentence—their main objective is to exclude her from the political process.

John Yettaw's wife suggested that her husband's arrest actually was a positive thing, because it raised awareness of her plight. What do you think of that?
That is going too far. Suu Kyi already has international attention. It's not fair.

Are you mad at him?
If he did this a few years ago, we would have been mad at him. But the timing is so coincidental that even if he didn't do it, the military would have found an excuse to detain her further. But he should really keep away from these politics.

There were some rumors that the junta purposely let him in, egged him on to go.
As far as we know, she asked him to get out. As you know, he is a crazy guy, so she did not have the heart to push him out.

Do you wish that Sen. Jim Webb, who was able to get Yettaw released from his sentence, had tried to get Suu Kyi released as well?
We knew that Senator Webb could not negotiate for her release. Of course they will not release her because Webb made one visit. And his statement that was very vague. [It's a good thing] that Gen. Than Shwe spoke to Senator Webb, [but it would be even better] if Than Shwe were talking to Aung San Suu Kyi in order to solve our problems.

Are you in touch with your cousin? Do you know how she feels about last week's verdict?
No, we study things from her statements, from her lawyers' statements. But I do not have direct communication with her.

Burma seems to have the support of China and Russia on the Security Council to block things like an arms embargo. Have you tried to lobby these governments to change their minds about their relationship with the military regime?
We send our opinion directly when it is possible. China is our big neighbor. We say to China, "What you want in Burma is stability and development, and this military regime will not and could deliver."

Why is the junta planning elections that will obviously not be free or fair?
They are thinking, "The international community will receive us if we go about in this way." They are the elected government, they think, so what is the use of putting sanctions on Burma?

So the elections are just for show?
They will not change anything. The winning party and the Parliament itself are very weak. So the system will remain the same.