Leading article: Another nail in the coffin of Burmese democracy

The new charges against Aung San Suu Kyi reveal the junta's intentions

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The target of the latest spasm of repression by the Burmese military regime is, once again, the junta's most courageous adversary. The Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused of breaching the conditions of her house arrest, after a US army veteran, John Yettaw, was apprehended returning from a visit to Ms Suu Kyi's Rangoon villa.

Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won democratic elections in 1990, has been moved to Insein prison to await trial. The punishment is expected to be the extension of her six year house arrest, which was due to expire at the end of this month.

Mr Yettaw's motivation for visiting Ms Suu Kyi remains mysterious. Some see him as a misguided pro-democracy activist. Others suggest his secret visit could have been part of an elaborate ploy by the junta to trick their adversary into breaking a law forbidding foreigners staying in local homes.

But whatever the truth, the Burmese regime has seized on the affair to prolong the persecution of Ms Suu Kyi. It is a bitter blow to Burmese democrats. Ms Suu Kyi is believed to be suffering from low blood pressure and dehydration. Tough though she undoubtedly is, her health might not withstand another prolonged bout of imprisonment.

The latest move by the regime has been interpreted as a way of keeping Ms Suu Kyi out of the way until elections scheduled for next year are over. There is a grim irony in the fact that the junta is so concerned about the outcome of polls which the outside world will, inevitably, regard as a sham.

The regime has enjoyed no democratic legitimacy since it ignored the outcome of the 1990 vote. Its refusal to allow emergency supplies of aid into the country in the immediate aftermath of the devastation inflicted by cyclone Nargis last year reinforced its pariah status. Some aid was eventually permitted into the country after personal representations from the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. But hundreds of thousand inhabitants of the Irrawaddy Delta are still homeless and without access to clean water; and a report by Johns Hopkins University said that much of the aid was misappropriated by the military. The rationality of the secretive junta is questionable. It rarely speaks to the outside world and governs from a new capital city, deep in the interior. But if there is a plausible explanation for its election plans, it probably lies in the regime's desire to construct a veneer of democracy to give Burma's Asian neighbours, China in particular, an excuse to ignore its abuses.

Few in Burma will be fooled though. Ms Suu Kyi's NLD said last month that it would consider taking part in the elections if the junta released its 2,100 political prisoners. But if Ms Suu Kyi's detention is to be extended, any deal is likely to be off the table.

The protests by Burma's saffron-robed monks in 2007 prompted hopes that the military regime's days were numbered. Yet that rising was brutally suppressed. The condemnation of the world was loud, but achieved nothing. It is hard to see the international objections that rolled out yesterday to the new charges against Ms Suu Kyi being more successful.

The junta is hammering another nail into the coffin of Burmese democracy. For now at least, the imprisonment of Ms Suu Kyi continues to mirror the captivity of her people.

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