What's happening at the
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 18:56 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 18:56 | SYDNEY

Conspiracies and cock-ups in Burma

By

COMMENTS

26 May 2009 11:13

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and author of Burma and the Threat of Invasion: Regime Fantasy or Strategic Reality?

Major political developments in Burma have always encouraged conspiracy theories, and the bizarre case of an American tourist’s unauthorised visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house earlier this month has proved no exception. In a familiar refrain, both the opposition movement and the military government are now accusing each other of hatching Machiavellian plots.

Soon after it became known that John Yettaw had swum across a lake to Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home, activist groups began claiming something was amiss. It seemed inconceivable to them that a foreigner could penetrate the security cordon around Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, let alone remain there for two nights, without the authorities finding out. Surely, they claimed, there were guards posted along the lake shore, and possibly even listening devices inside her house, which would have ensured Yettaw’s immediate arrest.

Central Rangoon, looking towards Sule Pagoda and the Rangoon River

The only explanation, these activists have suggested, was that Yettaw was a dupe, if not a willing accomplice of the regime, who was permitted to enter Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound specifically in order to compromise her. By feigning illness and exhaustion, he asked to stay for a few days. The idealistic opposition leader could hardly refuse, or report the intruder to the authorities. According to this theory, the visit thus gave the regime the excuse it was seeking, to keep her incarcerated after her current detention order expires — some say later this month, others in November.

Naypyidaw doubtless expected some reaction after it charged Aung San Suu Kyi with breaking the terms of her house arrest and sent her to trial. Yet it seems to have been taken aback by the tsunami of outrage which has washed over Burma in recent weeks. World leaders, international organisations, Nobel laureates and other prominent figures have all condemned the regime’s actions, and called for the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi to be dropped. They have also demanded her immediate release from house arrest.

In response, the regime has developed a conspiracy theory of its own. The Burmese Foreign Minister has been reported as saying that Yettaw’s visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home was part of a cunning plot by the opposition movement to intensify international pressure on Naypyidaw. The culprits were ‘internal and external anti-government elements’, trying to discredit the regime at a time when the US and several other countries were reviewing their hard line policies against the military government.

The Pyitthu Hluttaw ('People's Assembly') building, unused since the armed forces took back direct political power in 1988.

In another sadly familiar tactic, one senior Burmese official has even suggested that Yettaw was either a ‘secret agent’ or Aung San Suu Kyi’s foreign ‘boyfriend’. Opposition spokesmen have accused the regime of trying to humiliate Aung San Suu Kyi, and undermine her standing with the Burmese people, by suggesting that the widowed democracy icon had allowed ‘a man’ to stay at her house overnight.

The details of this incident are still unclear. There is a suggestion, for example, that Yettaw had pulled this stunt once before, and been reported by Aung San Suu Kyi’s staff. If true, that would certainly strengthen the theory that the authorities allowed him to make a second visit. But the facts of the matter are likely to be far more prosaic.

The likelihood of someone trying to swim across Inya Lake, in the heart of Rangoon, to visit Aung San Suu Kyi was always very remote. No supporter would knowingly endanger the opposition leader that way. As a consequence, the rear of her compound was never heavily guarded. Also, after 13 years without significant incident — at least on the lake side of the house — it is unlikely that Aung San Suu Kyi’s guards gave the possibility of an aquatic intruder any thought. Their attention was focussed elsewhere, allowing Yettaw simply to wade ashore.

In looking for explanations of developments in Burma, and given the choice between conspiracy and cock-up, it is usually safer to opt for the cock-up. In this case, it appears that there were two. A rather foolish and naive man simply failed to think through the dire consequences of his actions. The regime’s mistake was in not being more vigilant in their patrols around Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound. The result of these cock-ups has been a major international incident.

In one sense, however, none of this makes any difference. There is little doubt that the regime always intended to extend the term of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, probably until after the 2010 general elections. It did not need an excuse to do so. Yettaw’s misguided exploit has given the regime an opportunity to dress up its decision in formal legal terms, but it has not changed Aung San Suu Kyi’s fate. 

Photos by the author.

You may also be interested in...