JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the continuing crackdown in Myanmar, the country formally known as Burma. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden narrates our setup report.
TOM BEARDEN: Aung San Suu Kyi awoke today in the home that has been her prison for much of the last 20 years. The democracy activist and Nobel laureate was convicted yesterday for violating the terms of her home detention.
The repressive military regime in Myanmar has kept her confined for her political activities. Yesterday’s decision stems from a bizarre incident in May involving an American man who swam across a lake to Suu Kyi’s home. John Yettaw claimed he was trying to save her from assassination. He stayed at her home for two days. Both were arrested and jailed on various charges.
Yesterday, Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years at hard labor, but the sentence was quickly reduced by the junta’s leader to 18 months of home confinement. Yettaw was sentenced to seven years of hard labor.
Both verdicts will be appealed, but Suu Kyi’s attorney said it came as no surprise. He spoke yesterday to the Associated Press.
NYAN WIN, attorney (through translator): Lady Suu has been expecting this outcome from the beginning. We didn’t say it before because it would have amounted to trying to influence the court. Actually, we anticipated this kind of outcome from the beginning; that’s why we have been stocking many books and medicines.
TOM BEARDEN: International condemnation was swift. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday.
HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: She should not have been tried, and she should not have been convicted. We continue to call for her release.
TOM BEARDEN: Suu Kyi will be detained at least through elections planned in Myanmar for next year. It would be the first such poll since 1990, when Suu Kyi’s party was elected in a landslide but was prevented from taking power.
ANNA ROBERTS, Burma Campaign U.K.: It’s clear that the regime wants to silence Aung San Suu Kyi and all voices of dissent in Burma ahead of their sham elections that are planned for next year, elections we know that have nothing to do with democracy and freedom, but everything to do with ensuring their continued rule and about entrenching military dictatorship in Burma.
Uprisings Challenge Regime
TOM BEARDEN: The power of the regime was challenged two years ago during widespread uprisings, led in part by Buddhist monks. The protests were brutally suppressed by the military.
Last year, a massive typhoon swept across the country, killing as many as 200,000 Burmese. In the face of the disaster, the government's reaction was to deny the scope of the tragedy and refuse international offers of assistance.
The military junta has been in control for nearly 50 years. It took power in a 1962 coup. It has repeatedly rebuffed international efforts that it liberalize Myanmar, once known as Burma.
Trade sanctions have been effectively diminished by regional trading partners, including China, and efforts at the United Nations to formally condemn the conviction yesterday were stalled by both Russia and China, who said the case of Aung San Suu Kyi was an internal Burmese matter.
JIM LEHRER: For more we go to two Myanmar watchers. Priscilla Clapp was chief of the U.S. mission there from 1999 to 2002. Tom Malinowski is Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
Ms. Clapp, what do you make of the 18-month house arrest sentence? Did you expect more, or were you relieved?
PRISCILLA CLAPP, former U.S. embassy official, Burma: Both, yes. She did -- her sentence was three years at hard labor, and I expected three to five years in jail.
JIM LEHRER: And you expected to put her -- that they would put her in prison?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: I expected that's what they would sentence her to. I was hoping that they wouldn't put her in prison, because I think it would be very dangerous for her. So in a sense, I am relieved that they've let her go home, but that doesn't mean that I think the conviction was correct.
JIM LEHRER: What's your analysis of why they did not put her in prison, Mr. Malinowski, why they let her stay at home?
TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: Actually, I think this is what they planned to do all along. The backdrop to this is the military junta's plan to hold this so-called election in 2010 in which they're planning to hand-pick a bunch of civilians to form a sort of facade civilian government that would be subservient to the military, ultimately.
And they needed to get Aung San Suu Kyi, the beloved leader of the democratic opposition in Burma, out of the way until that election so that she can't interfere with those plans.
And so what they needed to do was -- it really didn't matter from their point of view whether she's in prison or confined in her house. They needed to keep her away from the people of Burma and away from a position in which she could oppose that plan.
JIM LEHRER: And there's no question that they won't allow her to participate in those elections, right?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: I think there is no question. The new constitution actually would have made it possible for her to participate from detention at home if she hadn't been sentenced by the court, but now that she's sentenced by the court and serving her sentence, even though she's at home, she is not eligible to run.
JIM LEHRER: What is known, if anything, about what her life is like inside that house on that lake?
TOM MALINOWSKI: It's solitary, by definition.
JIM LEHRER: Anybody in the house with her?
TOM MALINOWSKI: She's had a couple of supporters who have been allowed to live with her, who have been sort of misidentified as servants over the last few years, and they were also sentenced to continued house arrest under the same strange trial.
But in terms of outside visitors, very occasional visits by her doctor, by her lawyer, but essentially a life of terrible, terrible isolation. Her family, for example, has been kept from seeing her for many, many years.
Information Flow Improving
JIM LEHRER: What's the information flow about her, and not only just her, about what's going on in the country itself? Has that improved any, particularly since the demonstrations and the protests and the arrests a while ago?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: It's improving all the time, because of technology.
JIM LEHRER: How -- explain that.
PRISCILLA CLAPP: It's improved a lot since I was there 10 years ago, since I lived there. The people have access to the Internet. They have access to telephones that they just didn't have before.
The advances in cell phone technology, the advances in Internet technology are beyond the ability of the regime to control it thoroughly. So a lot of people have access to those, to means of communicating with the outside world.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Beyond Suu Kyi's situation, what's it like to live in Burma right now? What's everyday life like?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: Everyday life is very difficult, because it is an extremely poor place. They don't have anything like the services that we're used to in our life. You have to do everything for yourself. It's a bureaucratic battle to get it done. It's a very difficult place to live as an ordinary citizen.
JIM LEHRER: But the word "oppressive" is used. We used it -- Tom Bearden used it in the setup piece. Oppressive in what way? And how do we know about it?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: Well, to we Americans it would be extremely oppressive, but to Burmese who have always lived this way, they're used to it. For example -- and this is what Aung San Suu Kyi was accused of -- you are not allowed to have anyone stay in your house that is not registered to live in that house or you could be sent to jail for five years. And they do bed checks at night. The local wardens come around to see if there's anybody in the house that's not supposed to be there.
JIM LEHRER: Everybody in the country is subject to a bed check?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes. But particularly in the cities, and particularly in Rangoon, where they're nervous about activity. They don't want people getting together and plotting.
TOM MALINOWSKI: They're used to this, but they're not really used to it, in the sense that it's not natural for any human being to live this way.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.
TOM MALINOWSKI: And, you know, that's why you have -- you know, the pattern in Burma has been a couple of years of political quiet followed by outbreaks of resistance, because people just don't want to live this way, and that's inevitable. It's going to continue until there's a way found to bring these two sides together.
JIM LEHRER: What happened, the so-called Saffron Rebellion, the Buddhist monks? What happened to them?
TOM MALINOWSKI: The leaders of the uprising -- many of whom were Buddhist monks, as you mentioned, and also a number of young activists -- were rounded up, brutally interrogated, and most of them have been sentenced to many years, in some cases decades in prison, served in isolated prisons in the jungle.
So we're all focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, because she is the symbol...
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
TOM MALINOWSKI: ... the leader, the hero of this movement, but there has been a massive crackdown on any kind of dissent, and people who are not famous get much harsher treatment than Aung San Suu Kyi.
JIM LEHRER: Are there still monks active within the population?
TOM MALINOWSKI: Absolutely. And there are...
JIM LEHRER: What are they doing? What are their activities?
TOM MALINOWSKI: They are laying low right now. They are communicating with each other. They're communicating with the outside world. But as of now, as we see, there are not massive demonstrations in Burma or strikes or actions.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any way to estimate -- to pick up on your earlier point -- is there any way to know or estimate how many people actually are in prison for these kinds of dissident activities?
TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, sure. And there are networks that report on this in a very professional way.
JIM LEHRER: What's the figure?
TOM MALINOWSKI: We think over 2,000.
PRISCILLA CLAPP: Over 2,000.
JIM LEHRER: How many?
TOM MALINOWSKI: Over 2,000.
JIM LEHRER: Over 2,000. Does that gel with what you've heard, as well?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes, it does. And, essentially, they doubled the number of political prisoners after the Saffron Revolution.
JIM LEHRER: And the people -- what's the word on how the prisoners are treated?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: They're treated very badly.
JIM LEHRER: Like what? What does that mean?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: It varies from prison to prison. Some prisons are worse than others. And they move them around to different parts of the country, so it's difficult for their families to visit them.
They don't feed them well. Most prisoners rely on their families to feed them. They don't give them proper medical treatment. They subject them to interrogations and harsh tortures. And they just make life miserable for them, particularly the political prisoners.
JIM LEHRER: Is there -- here again referring to what Tom said in the setup piece, and you mentioned also about the electronic activity, the ability to get word out -- is there any evidence at all that what happens outside Burma, whether it's done by the United States, the United Nations, or any group of nations makes any difference at all?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: It makes a difference in the long run, but it's very difficult to measure. It keeps extreme pressure on the regime, and the regime has to worry about its own population. The people care. The people inside Burma care. The regime tries...
JIM LEHRER: They want to know that people outside are on their side and doing something?
PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes, it means a lot to them to know that...
JIM LEHRER: Yes. What's your...
TOM MALINOWSKI: I think it, well, means a lot to the people. I think it means a lot to the government, too.
There's one interesting thing about this verdict that people haven't commented on. We expected it to come a lot sooner, a month ago, even before then. They waited until mid-August, when virtually every senior official in Europe and the United States is on vacation, and I don't think that's entirely coincidental. I think...
JIM LEHRER: Slip it under the radar, if they could?
TOM MALINOWSKI: Slip it under the radar. And, also, the somewhat more lenient-than-expected nature of the sentence. In other words, some people expected, you know, hard labor in prison, but it's only house arrest.
They do have an eye on the international community. They are aware that they are living in a world that is watching them, and they are somewhat paranoid about what the international community might do down the road. And that is a fear that can be exploited if there's an energetic effort by the United States, by other countries to continue this pressure and actually to enhance it in creative ways.
PRISCILLA CLAPP: And every year, they prepare for the U.N. General Assembly, which starts in early September, trying to make a few gestures here and there so that the international leaders will be a little easier on them.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And that's basically China and Russia, right, in terms of keeping the rest of the world on the backs of the...
PRISCILLA CLAPP: No, the General Assembly is when all of the world leaders come together.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, yes, they all come, right.
PRISCILLA CLAPP: And if something bad is going on in Burma, in Myanmar, the world leaders start talking about it, and the generals do not like that, so they try to make sure that things are calmed down by the time the General Assembly comes. And I think that is what they had in mind when they handed out this sentence.
JIM LEHRER: What's going on now. OK. Thank you all very much.
TOM MALINOWSKI: Thank you.