Andrew Buncombe: A verdict that clears junta's path to election

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The proclamation commuting Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment yesterday was careful to make clear her sentence should be lessened "if" she was found guilty by the court and not "when".

The wording was risible; at no point since she was accused of trumped up charges earlier this year was the verdict of this cruel show-trial ever in doubt. And for most informed observers of Burma neither was the decision – taken in order "to preserve tranquility"– to return the 64-year-old to her lakeside home rather then to lock her up in Insein jail.

The decision by the junta, which runs the beleaguered country with scant regard for the wishes or well-being of its people, is designed to do two things. Firstly, it hopes to dampen the fury of those who might have taken to the streets in protest at a lengthy jail sentence – although the likelihood of a repeat of the remarkable democracy demonstrations that broke out in September 2007 is remote, largely because so many of the Buddhist monks and activists who took part have themselves been put behind bars.

Secondly, the junta will now seek to use its commutation as a sop to the international community, particularly those countries in the region who, in recent years, have grown critical of the regime. At the UN, whose Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month paid a humiliating visit to Burma, it will likewise be used as a diplomatic fig-leaf.

At the heart of this entire episode, which centres on a secret visit by an unlikely middle-aged American, was one thing – the junta's overriding desire to keep the opposition leader out of the way ahead of next year's election. For all the regime's claims about progress towards democracy, this controversial poll will only cement the role of the military in Burma's future and as such Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy had called for a boycott.

For a regime oddly obsessed with an outward show of legality and correct routine – the previous extensions of her house arrest were always accompanied by the presentation of seemingly impressive legal documents purpoting to show under what provision she was being detained – the late-night swim of John Yettaw was an unmissable gift. The Vietnam veteran from Falcon, Missouri, provided a perfect opportunity to bring new charges against her.

But those who may feel inclined to berate Mr Yettaw should think again. However naive or misguided the father-of-six may have been, he is, in truth, a disposable prop to the broader drama; had it not been for his "illegal" visit, the junta would have found another excuse to keep Ms Suu Kyi behind bars. The reason is quite simple; in a country brutalised by decades of military rule, the Nobel laureate remains one of the very few people, perhaps the only one, capable of uniting ordinary people.

Following yesterday's decision there were swift demands from the EU for more sanctions, which will be accompanied by criticism of the likes of China and India for entering into energy deals with Burma. Such complaints, of course, ignore the West's own deals with Nigeria and Saudi Arabia where human rights are equally trampled upon.

Sanctions might put pressure on the regime to release those imprisoned in Burma's jails and enter into genuine dialogue with the political opposition, but only if they are comprehensive and only if everyone backs them. Until then, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and Burma's estimated 2,000 other political prisoners are likely to remain just that.