Obama: Suu Kyi Sentencing 'Unjust,' Urges Her Immediate Release

11 August 2009

President Barack Obama said Tuesday the Burmese decision to extend democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest for another 18 months is unjust and called for her immediate, unconditional release. Officials say the trial outcome will have a negative impact on the administration's review of policy towards Burma.

Burmese activists hold a banner calling for the immediate release of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest outside the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, 11 Aug 2009
Burmese activists hold a banner calling for the immediate release of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest outside the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, 11 Aug 2009
The Obama administration has been reviewing its approach to Burma with the possibility of greater engagement with the military authorities there. But officials say the conviction and sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi Tuesday for violating terms of her long-running house arrest can only negatively affect those deliberations.

President Obama set the tone of U.S. reaction with a written statement calling the conviction of the Burmese democracy leader unjust and a violation of international human rights principles and Burmese commitments under the ASEAN charter.

The latest case against the democracy leader followed a bizarre incident involving an American citizen who made an uninvited visit to her home in May.

The President called the sentencing of the American defendant in the case, John Yettaw, to seven years in prison for the home invasion out of proportion with his actions. He urged the release of all of Burma's political prisoners, believed to number more than 2000.

At the State Department, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley said Aung San Suu Kyi, who allowed Yettaw to enter her home after he swam across a lake to the guarded compound, had been in essence "convicted of being polite."

Crowley said the sentence is a thinly-veiled effort by military authorities to keep Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined for elections planned for next year.

He said unless she is released along with other political detainees, the elections will have "absolutely no legitimacy," and he suggested the country's rulers have an irrational fear of the diminutive political figure.

"They are afraid of a 64-year-old woman who probably weighs barely 100 pounds. But what she represents is an idea that this is government by the people, and on behalf of the people rather than government by the few for the benefit of a few," said Assistant Secretary of State Crowley. "And clearly like we have in many other circumstances, there is an opportunity for a different kind of relationship by Burma, with not only with the United States, but the rest of the international, and clearly we feel this is a step in the wrong direction."

Crowley said he did not want to prejudge the outcome of the administration's Burma policy review but said the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi, which came despite appeals for dismissal of the charges by Secretary of State Clinton- will have a negative impact on those deliberations.

Clinton attended an international dialogue with ASEAN foreign ministers in Thailand late last month and in a conciliatory gesture, members of her delegation met with Burmese officials there.

Spokesman Crowley, under questioning, said talk of new sanctions against Burma was premature and that the United States will be consulting with regional allies and countries with influence with Burma, including China, on the way forward in the aftermath of the trial.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won elections in 1990, but was barred by the military from taking power, has been under various forms of detention most of the time since then. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

The United States maintains diplomatic relations with Burma, but at a sub-ambassadorial level. The Bush administration imposed a near-total trade ban on Burma because of its human rights record in 2003, and President Obama extended the ban for another year in May.