BANGKOK – A widely expected guilty verdict in the trial of Burma pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to halt tentative Western moves to improve relations with the country's junta and make it harder to raise funds for humanitarian relief efforts, analysts said Sunday.
Suu Kyi, who has been in detention without trial for more than 13 of the past 19 years, is being tried on charges of violating the terms of her house arrest after an uninvited American, John W. Yettaw, swam across a lake to her home earlier this month and stayed for two days. The offense is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.
Suu Kyi pleaded not guilty Friday, but expectations are high that she will be found guilty after the court accepted the charges and moved to proceed with the trial. Burma's courts operate under the influence of the ruling military, and almost always deal harshly with political dissidents.
The charges against her are widely seen as a pretext for the government to keep her detained during polls it has scheduled for next year as the culmination of its "roadmap to democracy," which has been criticized as a fig leaf for continued military rule.
The trial comes weeks after the European Union announced it was stepping up humanitarian aid to the impoverished country, also known as Burma, and the United States said it was reviewing its policy — including speculation that it might soften sanctions the regime says have crippled its economy.
But now the European Union is talking of introducing tougher sanctions in response to the trial and the administration of President Obama has announced it will continue its economic penalties. Obama extended a state of emergency against the country after Suu Kyi's arrest. Sanctions would have expired had the emergency order not been extended.
Sean Turnell, a Burma expert at Australia's Macquarie University, said the timing of the trial shows the junta "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
"I think there was, prior to these latest events, a strong likelihood that the U.S. and Europe positions on Burma may have softened, and that some sanctions may even have been on the table" for review, Turnell said in an e-mail interview. "The regime have now shot themselves in the foot so to speak — and anything like this would seem to be decidedly off the table now."
David Steinberg, a Burma specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said there had been talk of "small steps toward easing relations" within the Obama administration. But he said a guilty verdict makes increased engagement with the ruling generals unlikely for now.
"I think they wanted to make some overtures, but this will make it far more difficult," Steinberg said of the Obama administration. "The junta needed to respond significantly as well at each step, and this would set it back."
Donors may also be less willing to fund a three-year, $700 million rebuilding plan for the Irrawaddy delta, which was devastated by a cyclone last year that killed more than 138,000 people.
Foreign governments and charities already were slow to fund initial relief efforts over concerns about the junta's human rights record.
"Any effort to limit the humanitarian funding needed to help Burma's poorest people as a response to Suu Kyi's trial would be shameful and would lead directly to the deaths of thousands of innocent people," warned Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and former U.N. official. "Neither economic embargoes, aid cut offs, long distance condemnation or attempts at occasional diplomacy have worked."
No one expects a guilty verdict to spark an uprising in Burma against the junta after its bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007, which killed at least 31 people. Hundreds more activists were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
"Everyone is angry but people are concerned with earning their daily bread," said Win Tin, an 80-year-old leader of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party who was released from prison last year after serving a 19-year sentence. "They are afraid and there is no leadership."
Security has been tight around the prison for the trial that resumes Monday and is expected to last another two weeks. Authorities have allowed about 100 Suu Kyi supporters, including Win Tin, to gather each day outside the prison, but most citizens in the commercial capital Yangon are reluctant to take it much further.
"We have seen what happened in 2007 when even monks are beaten and shot at by soldiers," said Wunna, a 32-year-old computer repairmen who took part in the protests. "I don't want to be killed nor imprisoned for simply expressing my feelings."