Sunday, June 14, 2009

Choosing the Right Battle Strategy

Op-ed, The Irrawaddy, Saturday, June 13, 2009

Choosing the Right Battle Strategy


Aung San Suu Kyi should view her trial as a political battle and not a legal one, and take strategic advantage of it.

By picking the right battle strategy, David was able to strike down Goliath with a slingshot and use his powerful sword to slay the giant. The rule of thumb is to choose fighting strength against weakness, and not strength against strength.

The regime's weakness lies on its international flank, especially its regional neighbors. The junta is also sensitive to the opinions of military officers and rank and file. These are the targets the Lady must hit repeatedly and relentlessly.

Aung San Suu Kyi believes that political integrity (i.e. "plain honesty in politics") is one of the most important virtues. She and many others regard the political integrity she upholds persistently as her strength. Perfect armor!

However, she has to comprehend the strength of her captors, too. The Lady cannot pick or prolong the battle within the junta's institutions, including the legal system, which is one of the most corrupted instruments serving the perpetuation of the regime.

As a serial liar and rule-breaker, the junta knows well how to manipulate its institutions against Suu Kyi and other opponents. Force and fraud are their strength.

This strength must be continuously exposed internationally as well as to a domestic public, especially to the military rank and file. But it might not be the battle front the Lady wants to open.

Confronting the strength of the regime straight on, as the opposition has mostly done in past, will end up in another defeat. The asymmetrical power relationship is evidential.

Suu Kyi’s trial is another test of the opposition's strategic caliber. In fact, the trial is widely believed to be a sham. The verdict has already been reached in Snr-Gen Than Shwe's mind.

Although Suu Kyi’s latest, six-year term of house arrest ended in May, the regime's supremo is still afraid of freeing her to the embrace of her supporters and the public at large.

The 63-year-old Nobel laureate faces a maximum prison sentence of five years. She could be condemned to prison or sent home for a further term of house arrest.

Whatever the terms of her incarceration, it is clear that the regime’s aim is to confine her until it has secured victory in the 2010 general election.

This is a political battle ground. That's why the trial has drawn international condemnation, including from the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean). The group warned the regime that "the honor and credibility of the Government of the Union of Myanmar are at stake".

Even Goh Chok Tong, a staunch ally of the regime and a former prime minister of Singapore, told Than Shwe during talks in Naypyidaw earlier this month that the trial has an international dimension.

Thus, the Lady must see the trial as a political battle. Instead of prolonging the trial, she must let the sham process get done and receive the prison sentence. That will intensify political battles in the international arena, including the UN Security Council and regional players.

The regime will no doubt face domestic challenges, too. The opposition National League for Democracy must also lead the political battle, instead of waiting for the result of the show trial.

If Suu Kyi allows the trial to drag on, she will give the regime a chance to project the impression of openness and due legal process. In fact, the junta has already derived advantage from Suu Kyi's appeal for four defense witnesses to be heard.

The lower District Court earlier disqualified all but one defense witness, but the Rangoon Divisional Court later ruled that a second witness could give testimony. With this concession, the junta might be quite satisfied in projecting the impression of a fair and independent legal process, though that will not have any effect on its final script.

More importantly, the protraction of the trial could reduce interest in the international media, as well as diplomatic pressures. Momentum always amasses two important sources of capital, which strategically-minded politicians should not squander—good timing and political good will.

That is why the court’s decision on Friday to postpone the trial until June 26 in order to hear the testimony of a Suu Kyi’s defense witness is not a good sign. In fact, Suu Kyi's lawyers requested the further adjournment since the defense witness has to come to court from southern Shan State, in the northeastern part of Burma.

Suu Kyi instructed her lawyers to continue the appeals process to allow more defense witnesses to be heard in the case as she wants "to see it through to the end as the ruling is legally wrong."

If the High Court upholds the lower courts' decision, the special court in Insein Prison may set a date sometime in July in which to deliver the verdict. The regime could still delay the verdict in order to ride out international pressure.

But the cause of any delay should not rest with the Lady.

If Suu Kyi and the NLD fail to distinguish between a political battle and a legal fight, and unless they focus more on the former, they will lose the momentum. Engaging in a lengthy legal battle will not yield any political outcome except the exhaustion of strategic capital.

In a clever move, Suu Kyi told diplomats who attended one session of her trial: "There could be many opportunities for national reconciliation if all parties so wished," according to a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, whose ambassador was among those who met her on May 20.

The statement said that she also "expressed the view that it was not too late for something good to come out of this unfortunate incident," referring to her trial. "She did not wish to use the intrusion into her home as a way to get at the Burma authorities," read the statement.

The statement represented a political offensive and displayed her strength, something the NLD should exploit. The NLD party should, for instance, have released an official statement supporting Goh's recent comments and Asean's "grave concern," and citing Suu Kyi's words to demonstrate the opposition's readiness for national reconciliation.

The goal must be to amass international and domestic public support and materialize it in the UN Security Council, Asean, China, and on the streets of Burma.

Suu Kyi can, of course, continue her legal battle, even after she is sentenced. But the focus must be to reap political advantage. The momentum should not be diminished.

The political battle must be renewed and the regime’s Achilles' heel must be located and attacked.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.