Derek Tonkin: The excuse the generals wanted

The arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi comes only days before the expiry of the term of her house arrest – and the question of how to deal with her has been looming for the Burmese authorities for some time. She is in poor health, and her detention in jail would result in the strongest international condemnation.

But elections are due next year under a new and flawed constitution, and Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has been discussing whether to take part. A Party Congress late last month decided to defer a decision, perhaps awaiting Ms Suu Kyi's release. This is now unlikely to happen, and if convicted she would effectively be taken out of circulation until well after the 2010 elections.

There was, of course, no justification at all for Ms Suu Kyi's arrest in the first place. Indeed, we were told that, following the vicious attack on her motorcade in 2003, she was only being kept under protection for her own safety. But the regime must be mindful that whenever she has been released in the past, she has at once resumed her campaign for civil liberties. The military leadership has never been willing to agree to face-to-face talks. They clearly decided some time ago that it was not possible to do business with her.

The irresistible Ms Suu Kyi has indeed been in almost perpetual confrontation with the immovable generals for the past 20 years. But many say that the conversion of a military regime to fully fledged democracy in so short a space of time was never realistic. We may admire her physical courage and determination, but a refusal to compromise has played into their hands. Immune to Western condemnation, the generals may well be delighted that the foolish John Yettaw has given them just the excuse they need.

Derek Tonkin was British Ambassador to Thailand 1986-89 and is now chairman of Network Myanmar